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Youthful Offenders Sentenced to LWOP Not Entitled to a Youth Offender Parole Hearing

In re Williams (Cal. Ct. App., Nov. 16, 2020, No. B303744) 2020 WL 6707335, at *1

Michael Williams was convicted by a jury of of two counts of first degree murder (Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a))1 that he committed during a robbery when he was 21 years old. The jury found true the allegation that he personally used a firearm in the commission of the robbery (§ 12022.5, subd. (a)). It also found true the special circumstance allegations that he committed multiple murders (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(3)) and murder during the commission of robbery (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(17)). A court sentenced him to two consecutive terms of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

Summary: Williams, self-represented at the time, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus on January 21, 2020. Williams asserted that the denial of a youth offender parole hearing under section 3051 violates his right to equal protection of the laws and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Under section 3051, subdivision (b), most inmates under age 26 at the time of their “controlling offense” become eligible for a youth offender parole hearing in their 15th, 20th, or 25th year of incarceration. The different statutory parole hearing dates depend on the offense. (§ 3051, subd. (b).) Section 3051, subdivision (h) is the exception to the rule. It excludes from youth offender parole hearings offenders, like petitioner, who are serving LWOP sentences for offenses committed “after the person had attained 18 years of age.”

The Court of Appeal appointed counsel for petitioner and issued an order to show cause. The Court denied the petition.

Youth Offender Parole Hearings and diminished culpability of Youthful Offenders

Youth offender parole hearings were provided under Penal Code section 3051  by the Legislature in 2013, following United States and California Supreme Court cases addressing the constitutionality of lengthy prison sentences for juvenile offenders. In Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (Graham), the United States Supreme Court had held the Eighth Amendment prohibits states from imposing an LWOP sentence on a juvenile convicted of a nonhomicide offense. (Graham, at pp. 74-75, 130 S.Ct. 2011.) Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (Miller), the Supreme Court held the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles, regardless of the crime, including murder. (Miller, at p. 479, 132 S.Ct. 2455.)

Graham and Miller were decided because of the diminished culpability of juveniles and their greater prospects for reform. Both cases relied on findings in Roper v. Simmons (2005) 543 U.S. 551, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 161 L.Ed.2d 1 (Roper), which declared the death penalty for juveniles unconstitutional. Graham, Miller, like Roper, cited brain science and psychological studies highlighting differences between adult and juvenile offenders. Children have a “ ‘ “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,” ’ leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking.” (Miller, supra, 567 U.S. at p. 471, 132 S.Ct. 2455.) They “ ‘are more vulnerable … to negative influences and outside pressures,’ ” have limited “ ‘contro[l] over their own environment,’ ” and “lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.” (Ibid.) And because “a child’s character is not as ‘well formed’ as an adult’s[,] his traits are ‘less fixed’ and his actions less likely to be ‘evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].’ ” (Ibid., first brackets added.) Therefore, a juvenile offender is both less culpable and more likely to rehabilitate than an adult offender. And states are required to provide juvenile offenders with a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” (Graham, supra, 560 U.S. at p. 75, 130 S.Ct. 2011.)

In People v. Caballero (2012) 55 Cal.4th 262, 145 Cal.Rptr.3d 286, 282 P.3d 291 (Caballero), the California Supreme Court extended Graham and Miller’s reasoning to a juvenile sentenced to 110 years to life in prison for nonhomicide crimes. Although Caballero did not receive a literal LWOP sentence, he would not have been eligible for parole for over 100 years, effectively giving him no “meaningful opportunity” to “ ‘demonstrate growth and maturity’ ” and thereby secure release during his natural lifespan. (Caballero, at p. 268, 145 Cal.Rptr.3d 286, 282 P.3d 291.) The Caballero court held the 110-years-to-life sentence unconstitutional and urged the Legislature “to enact legislation establishing a parole eligibility mechanism that provides a defendant serving a de facto life sentence without possibility of parole for nonhomicide crimes that he or she committed as a juvenile with the opportunity to obtain release on a showing of rehabilitation and maturity.” (Id. at p. 269, fn. 5, 145 Cal.Rptr.3d 286, 282 P.3d 291.)

Penal Code 3051 addresses youth sentenced to de facto life sentences not LWOP

The Legislature enacted section 3051 to address “the situation, the subject of People v. Caballero, in which a youth is sentenced to life-with-the-possibility of parole, which may serve as a de facto life sentence.” (Assem. Com. on Appropriations, Analysis of Sen. Bill No. 260 (2013-2014 Reg. Sess.) as amended Aug. 12, 2013, p. 2.) Juveniles sentenced to LWOP, however, were not included in the bill’s provisions because the Legislature believed the law already provided a remedy for those offenders: Under section 1170, subdivision (d)(2), inmates who were under age 18 at the time of their crimes and sentenced to LWOP could petition the court for resentencing after 15 years. (Assem. Com. on Appropriations, Analysis of Sen. Bill No. 260 (2013-2014 Reg. Sess.) as amended Aug. 12, 2013; see also § 1170, subd. (d)(2).)

Effective January 1, 2016, section 3051’s provisions were extended to offenders who were under age 24 at the time of their offenses. (Stats. 2015, ch. 471, § 1 (Sen. Bill No. 261).) Two years later, they were further extended to include offenders who were under age 26 when they committed their crimes. (Stats. 2017, ch. 675, § 1 (Assem. Bill No. 1308);see also § 3051, subd. (a)(1).) In doing so, the Legislature cited “[r]ecent neurological research show[ing] that cognitive brain development continues well beyond age 18 and into early adulthood.” (Assem. Com. on Appropriations, Analysis of Sen. Bill No. 261 (2015-2016 Reg. Sess.)as amended July 1, 2015, p. 1; see also Assem. Com. on Public Safety, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 1308 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.) as amended Mar. 30, 2017.)

In 2016, the United States Supreme Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) 577 U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 718, 193 L.Ed.2d 599 (Montgomery) that Miller’s prohibition against mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders is retroactive. Concerned that its retroactive application of Miller would result in mandatory resentencing of large numbers of inmates, the Montgomery court advised of an alternative. “Giving Miller retroactive effect, moreover, does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole. A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.” (Montgomery, at p. 736.)

Following the Montgomery decision, the Court of Appeal in In re Berg (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 418, 438-439, 202 Cal.Rptr.3d 786 (Berg) held the resentencing procedure in section 1170, subdivision (d)(2) failed to provide an adequate remedy for juvenile offenders serving LWOP sentences. For some, the statute did not comport with Miller, for others the statute did not apply at all. (Berg, at pp. 438-439, 202 Cal.Rptr.3d 786.)

In  response to Montgomery and Berg that the Legislature once again amended section 3051 to extend youth offender parole hearings, for the first time, to inmates sentenced to LWOP for crimes committed before age 18. (Sen. Com. on Public Safety, Analysis of Sen. Bill No. 394 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.) Feb. 15, 2017.) The senate bill analysis states that the legislation “clarifies that it does not apply to those with a life without parole sentence who were older than 18 at the time of his or her controlling offense.” (Id. at p. 2.) The amendment thus did not provide any relief to petitioner who had committed an LWOP offense after he had attained 18 years of age.

Equal Protection claim 

Williams claims his sentence violates the constitutional right to equal protection of the laws. “The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the California Constitution guarantee all persons the equal protection of the laws. To succeed on an equal protection claim, [petitioner] must first show that the state has adopted a classification that affects two or more similarly situated groups in an unequal manner. [Citation.] … [¶] Where a class of criminal defendants is similarly situated to another class of defendants who are sentenced differently, courts look to determine whether there is a rational basis for the difference. [Citation.]” (People v. Edwards (2019) 34 Cal.App.5th 183, 195, 246 Cal.Rptr.3d 40 (Edwards).)

The first step in the equal protection analysis is to determine whether two groups are similarly situated. The question “ ‘is not whether persons are similarly situated for all purposes, but “whether they are similarly situated for purposes of the law challenged.” ’ [Citation.]” (People v. Brown (2012) 54 Cal.4th 314, 328, 142 Cal.Rptr.3d 824, 278 P.3d 1182; see also Edwards, supra, 34 Cal.App.5th at p. 198, 246 Cal.Rptr.3d 40.) Williams argues there he, as an adult criminal under age 26 convicted of LWOP offenses, is similarly situated to adult criminals under the age of 26 who are sentenced to non-LWOP terms. 

Brain development and decision-making of young adults

The author of Assembly Bill No. 1308, which expanded youth offender parole hearings to non-LWOP inmates under age 26 at the time of their crimes, explained the change “ ‘would align public policy with scientific research…. Scientific evidence on adolescence and young adult development and neuroscience shows that certain areas of the brain, particularly those affecting judgment and decision-making, do not develop until the early-to-mid-20s. Research has shown that the prefrontal cortex doesn’t have nearly the functional capacity at age 18 as it does at 25. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for a variety of important functions of the brain including: attention, complex planning, decision making, impulse control, logical thinking, organized thinking, personality development, risk management, and short-term memory. These functions are highly relevant to criminal behavior and culpability.’ ” (Assem. Com. on Public Safety, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 1308 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.) as amended Mar. 30, 2017, p. 2, italics added.) The bill’s author also noted a second consideration—that “ ‘motivation to focus on rehabilitation has increased’ ” following section 3051’s enactment. (Assem. Com. on Public Safety, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 1308 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.) as amended Mar. 30, 2017, p. 3.) “ ‘An offender is more likely to enroll in school, drop out of a gang, or participate in positive programs if they can sit before a parole board sooner, if at all, and have a chance of being released.’ ” (Ibid.)

Williams argues that youth offenders sentenced to LWOP and those sentenced to a parole-eligible life terms are similarly situated with respect to the Legislature’s second goal— to account for youthful offenders’ potential for growth and rehabilitation. Applying the legislative findings, one could say that both groups committed their crimes before their prefrontal cortexes reached their full functional capacity, when their characters were not yet fully formed. Both groups are equally likely to demonstrate improved judgment and decision-making as they reach emotional and cognitive maturity.

However, youth offenders sentenced to LWOP and those youth offenders sentenced to parole-eligible life terms are not similarly situated with respect to the Legislature’s first goal, which is to calibrate sentences in accordance with youthful offenders’ diminished culpability. While a 21-year-old special circumstance murderer may, in fact, have diminished culpability compared with a 28 year old who commits the same crime, he is nonetheless more culpable and has committed a more serious crime than a 21 year old convicted of a nonspecial circumstance murder. (SeePeople v. Descano (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 175, 182, 199 Cal.Rptr.3d 297 [“ ‘Persons convicted of different crimes are not similarly situated for equal protection purposes. [Citations.]’ (People v. Macias (1982) 137 Cal.App.3d 465, 473, 187 Cal.Rptr. 100.)”]; People v. Pecci (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 1500, 1503, 86 Cal.Rptr.2d 43 [“[p]ersons convicted of different offenses can be punished differently”]; see also In re Jones (2019) 42 Cal.App.5th 477, 481-482, 255 Cal.Rptr.3d 571.)

Where two groups of individuals are not similarly situated for purposes of the law being challenged, we need not proceed to the next step of the equal protection analysis. (People v. Moreno (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 934, 941-942, 180 Cal.Rptr.3d 522.) However, even if we assume petitioner is similarly situated to non-LWOP indeterminately-sentenced youth offenders aged 18 to 25, we still would find no equal protection violation.

In excluding LWOP inmates from youth offender parole hearings, the Legislature reasonably could have decided that youthful offenders who have committed such crimes—even with diminished culpability and increased potential for rehabilitation—are nonetheless still sufficiently culpable and sufficiently dangerous to justify lifetime incarceration.

In this case, petitioner was convicted of special circumstance multiple murder. The crime carries a mandatory sentence of LWOP or death (§ 190.2, subd. (a)), which are the harshest penalties available under our penal system and are reserved for crimes of the most heinous nature.6 (See In re Nunez, supra, 173 Cal.App.4th at p. 728, 93 Cal.Rptr.3d 242 [describing special circumstance murders as “the most heinous acts” proscribed by law].) The Legislature rationally judged this crime to be more severe and more deserving of lifetime punishment than nonspecial circumstance first-degree murder. This judgment is “both the prerogative and the duty of the Legislature” and “[e]qual protection analysis does not entitle the judiciary to second-guess the wisdom, fairness, or logic” of that judgment. (People v. Turnage, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 74, 144 Cal.Rptr.3d 489, 281 P.3d 464.)

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Williams argued that his LWOP sentence violates the Eighth Amendment because it is grossly disproportionate to his culpability. We consider his argument in terms of whether the sentence is grossly disproportionate to the two special circumstances murders petitioner committed, and whether LWOP is grossly disproportionate for any youthful offender.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits only sentences that are grossly disproportionate to an individual’s crime. Our Supreme Court has cautioned this limitation “will rarely apply to those serious offenses and offenders currently subject by statute to life-maximum imprisonment.” (Dannenberg, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 1071, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 104 P.3d 783.)

The United States and California Supreme Courts have recognized there is no crime more depraved or more injurious than intentional first-degree murder. (See People v. Contreras (2018) 4 Cal.5th 349, 382, 229 Cal.Rptr.3d 249, 411 P.3d 445 [nonhomicide crimes “ ‘may be devastating in their harm, … but “in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public,” they cannot be compared to murder in their “severity and irrevocability.” ’ (Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008) 554 U.S. 407, 438, 128 S.Ct. 2641, 171 L.Ed.2d 525.)”].) This is doubly true in the case of a double murder, even when committed by a 21 year old. (See People v. Garnica (1994) 29 Cal.App.4th 1558, 1563, 35 Cal.Rptr.2d 229 [in case involving a multiple murder special circumstance finding, “[e]ach of the murders is deemed the more heinous because it is one of multiple killings”].) In light of the severity of this crime and the magnitude of the harm inflicted, the LWOP sentence is not “grossly disproportionate” to petitioner’s culpability.

In People v. Flores(2020) 9 Cal. 5th 371, 429, 262 Cal.Rptr.3d 67, 462 P.3d 919, the court acknowledged research that youths ages 18 to 21 share many of the same cognitive and developmental deficiencies as adolescents under age 18. Quoting from the court’s earlier opinion in People v. Powell (2018) 6 Cal.5th 136, 192, 237 Cal.Rptr.3d 793, 425 P.3d 1006, the court nonetheless held that 18 is “ ‘the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest.’ ” If the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit a sentence of death for 21 year olds, then most assuredly, it does not prohibit the lesser LWOP sentence.

Disposition

The petition for writ of habeas corpus is denied.

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