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State ex rel. Carr v. Wallace

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

July 11, 2017

STATE ex rel. JASON CLAY CARR, Petitioner,



         In 1983, Jason Carr was convicted of three counts of capital murder for killing his brother, stepmother, and stepsister when he was 16 years old. He was sentenced to three concurrent terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years. His sentences were imposed without any consideration of his youth. Mr. Carr filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in this Court. He contends his sentences violate the Eighth Amendment because, following the decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life without parole pursuant to mandatory sentencing schemes that preclude consideration of the offender's youth and attendant circumstances.

         Mr. Carr was sentenced under a mandatory sentencing scheme that afforded the sentencer no opportunity to consider his age, maturity, limited control over his environment, the transient characteristics attendant to youth, or his capacity for rehabilitation. As a result, Mr. Carr's sentences were imposed in direct contravention of the foundational principle that imposition of a state's most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children. Consequently, Mr. Carr's sentences of life without the possibility of parole for 50 years violate the Eighth Amendment. Mr. Carr must be resentenced so his youth and other attendant circumstances surrounding his offense can be taken into consideration to ensure he will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Habeas relief is granted.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Mr. Carr was born in 1968.[1] His parents divorced several years later. Immediately following the divorce, Mr. Carr and his brother lived with their paternal grandmother, although their mother had legal custody of the two boys. About a year and a half later, the boys began living with their mother, who had remarried. Due to ongoing physical and verbal abuse from their stepfather, the boys later lived with their biological father.

         Mr. Carr's father was an alcoholic but had stopped drinking when Mr. Carr was about five years old and became a devout member of a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation. His father's religious beliefs seemingly led him to place strict restrictions on Mr. Carr, which caused conflict. For example, when he lived with his father, Mr. Carr was not allowed to play high school basketball because practice conflicted with the family's home bible study. He was also not allowed to play video games, watch certain television shows, or date a girl who did not attend his father's place of worship. Mr. Carr lived with his father until he was around 14 years old.

         The boys moved back in with their mother following her second divorce. Upon returning to his mother's house, Mr. Carr attempted to throw away his Jehovah's Witnesses books and pamphlets. Citing the expense of the materials, his mother had him store them in a closet. While living with his mother, he was allowed to join the high school basketball team and was generally a good student who did not get in serious trouble. Early in January 1983, when he was around 16 years old, Mr. Carr received a phone call from his father. Following the phone call, Mr. Carr became withdrawn. He quit the basketball team and would not see his friends. He stayed in his room most of the time, would not talk or eat much, and began reading the Jehovah's Witnesses materials he had kept. At Mr. Carr's request, his mother took him to live with his father, his stepmother, and stepsister in late January 1983.

         Sometime in early March 1983, Mr. Carr called his mother. He was upset and repeatedly told his mother he was "bad" because he wanted to do things that were against church rules, such as play basketball, date a girl outside the faith, and drive. Evidence presented at his trial suggested his father made him publicly renounce the girl he wanted to date during a worship service. In addition, his mother testified at trial that Mr. Carr "kept saying he was trying to do the right thing but everything he did was bad and he said his dad kept telling him he was bad." She also testified that he said that the congregation "kept telling him that he was bad because he wasn't going by their rules." Based on Mr. Carr's demeanor during the phone call, his mother testified she believed he was suffering from an ongoing mental disease or defect that would not have allowed him to "calmly and coolly reflect on killing someone."

         On March 14, 1983, Mr. Carr and his father went to a worship service. During the service, his father "rebuked and ridiculed" him for failing to recite a biblical passage. After the service, Mr. Carr stayed at his grandmother's house. The following morning, he did not attend high school. Instead, he returned to his father's house, where he stayed throughout the day.

         At approximately 4:15 p.m., his brother and stepsister returned home from school. When they entered the house, Mr. Carr shot his brother at close range with a .22 caliber rifle, hitting him in the left side of the back of his head and in front of his right ear. He shot his stepsister in her back and in her left eye. When his stepmother returned home from work at around 4:35 p.m., he shot her at close range above the right eye and in the right temple. When Mr. Carr's father arrived home at approximately 5:10 p.m., Mr. Carr attempted to shoot his father, but the rifle did not fire. When Mr. Carr tried to insert another shell into the rifle, his father took the gun from him, seemingly without resistance. After being disarmed, Mr. Carr began crying. He told his father he "kill[ed] them all, " including his brother, even though he loved him.

         At the time of the offenses, Mr. Carr was 16 years old. He was originally charged as a juvenile offender and then certified to be tried as an adult for three counts of capital murder under section 565.001.[2] At the time, capital murder could be punished by death or a life sentence without the possibility of parole for 50 years. Section 565.008.1. The state did not seek the death penalty. Therefore, if convicted, the only eligible sentence Mr. Carr could receive was life without the possibility of parole for 50 years.

         In December 1983, a jury convicted Mr. Carr of three counts of capital murder. Following the jury's verdict, the trial court sentenced him to three concurrent sentences of life imprisonment without the eligibility for parole for 50 years. Because the state did not seek the death penalty, the defense was not required to and did not present any mitigating evidence prior to sentencing. The trial court's judgment stated that Mr. Carr would be scheduled for a parole hearing in March 2031. The court of appeals affirmed his convictions on direct appeal. Carr, 687 S.W.2d at 613. Mr. Carr's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was also denied. Id. at 611.

         Mr. Carr filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in this Court after the Supreme Court of the United States' decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012). In Miller, the Supreme Court held that juveniles could not be sentenced to a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole in a homicide case without first considering whether this punishment was just and appropriate given the juvenile offender's age, development, and the circumstances of the offense. Id. at 2469. Mr. Carr argued his mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for 50 years violate the Eighth Amendment because they were imposed on him for offenses he committed as a juvenile without consideration of any of the factors in Miller.

         While Mr. Carr's habeas petition was pending, the Supreme Court held that Miller's substantive rule must be applied retroactively on collateral review of a juvenile offender's mandatory sentence of life without parole. Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718, 736 (2016). This Court then set this case for briefing and oral argument.

         Standard of Review for Habeas Relief

         This Court has jurisdiction to "issue and determine original remedial writs." Mo. Const. art. V., sec. 4. "Habeas corpus relief is the final judicial inquiry into the validity of a criminal conviction and functions to relieve [prisoners] whose convictions violate fundamental fairness." State ex rel. Clemons v. Larkin, 475 S.W.3d 60, 76 (Mo. banc 2015). A prisoner is entitled to habeas corpus relief where he proves that he is "restrained of his . . . liberty in violation of the constitution or laws of the state or federal government." Id. Although prisoners are generally required to raise constitutional claims on direct appeal or in a post-conviction proceeding, a defendant has cause for failing to raise ...

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