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Brown v. Precythe

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Central Division

October 31, 2017

NORMAN BROWN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ANNE L. PRECYTHE, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          NANETTE K. LAUGHREY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Norman Brown, Ralph McElroy, Sidney Roberts, and Theron Roland are serving Missouri prison sentences for first-degree murder offenses committed when they were less than 18 years of age. Each originally received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. However, the United States Supreme Court recently held that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a person who was under the age of 18 when he committed the offense violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. After the Supreme Court clarified that this holding applies retroactively, the Missouri legislature enacted a law permitting those who had been convicted to life without the possibility of parole for offenses they committed as juveniles to petition for parole after serving 25 years in prison. Each of the plaintiffs then petitioned for, but was denied, parole. Each is scheduled for reconsideration of the parole determination in five years.

         Plaintiffs allege in their first amended complaint that Missouri's parole policies and practices violate their rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and their rights to due process under the Constitutions of both the United States and Missouri. They sue the Director of the Missouri Department of Corrections and members of the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole (the “Board”), seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Plaintiffs seek to represent a class of offenders sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles.

         Defendants have moved to dismiss and Plaintiffs have moved for leave to file a second amended complaint to add a new count for declaratory judgment concerning Defendants' alleged failure to satisfy Missouri Revised Statutes Sections 558.047.5 and 565.033.2. Plaintiffs also seek to compel production of certain categories of information that Defendants object to producing.

         I. The Legal Background

         a. Constitutional Limitations on Sentences for Juveniles

         The bar in the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits subjecting an individual “to excessive sanctions.” Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 560 (2005). In a series of cases over the last eight years, the United States Supreme Court has concluded that the imposition of the sentence of life without parole on those who were under the age of eighteen when they committed an offense generally violates this prohibition. First, in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Supreme Court held that sentencing juvenile, non-homicide offenders to life without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment. Subsequently, in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), the Supreme Court held that mandatory life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders, too, violates the Eighth Amendment. Finally, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), the Supreme Court clarified that Miller's holding constitutes substantive law that must be applied retroactively to offenders already facing mandatory life in prison. The Supreme Court explained that a state need not guarantee freedom to the juvenile offender, but the sentence must provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Miller, 567 U.S. at 479 (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 75); see also Montgomery, 136 S.Ct. at 736 (“Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences. The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate . . . that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”).

         The rationale for treating juvenile offenders differently from adult offenders is simply that “children are different . . . .” Miller, 567 U.S. at 481. “[D]evelopments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.” Graham, 560 U.S. at 68. As Miller explains,

First, children have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Second, children are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, including from their family and peers; they have limited control over their own environment and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. And third, 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 irretrievable depravity.

Miller, 567 U.S. at 471 (quotation marks and citations omitted). Youth “is a time of immaturity, irresponsibility, impetuousness, and recklessness.” Id. at 476 (quotation marks and citation omitted). It is “a condition of life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and to psychological damage.” Id. (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         “Parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through late adolescence.” Graham, 560 U.S. at 68. Studies have shown that “only a relatively small proportion of adolescents who engage in illegal activity develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.” Miller, 567 U.S. at 471 (quotation marks and citation omitted). Thus, the actions of a juvenile “are less likely to be evidence of irretrievably depraved character than are the actions of adults.” Graham, 560 U.S. at 68 (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         Because “a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed, ” it “would be misguided” to treat a juvenile offender in the same fashion as an adult. Id. (quotation marks and citation omitted). A mandatory sentence of life without parole takes no account of the fact that the “signature qualities” of youth described above “are all transient.” Miller, 567 U.S. at 476 (quotation marks and citation omitted). As Miller explains,

Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features-among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him-and from which he cannot usually extricate himself-no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. . . . It ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth-for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys.

Id. at 477-78. The sentence of life without parole for a juvenile “disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.” Id. at 478.

         Although the rule enunciated in Miller applies retroactively, it “does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole.” Montgomery, 136 S.Ct. at 736. “A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.” Id. at 736. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court noted that “Miller did bar life without parole . . . for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Id. at 734. “[G]iven . . . children's diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, . . . appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty” are supposed to “be uncommon.” Miller, 567 U.S. at 479.

         b. Missouri Law on Juveniles Serving Life Without Parole

         After Montgomery, the Missouri legislature amended state law to permit those who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole for offenses committed when they were juveniles to petition for parole after serving 25 years in prison. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.047. The amended law provides, in relevant part:

Any person sentenced to a term of imprisonment for life without eligibility for parole before August 28, 2016, who was under eighteen years of age at the time of the commission of the offense or offenses, may submit to the parole board a petition for a review of his or her sentence . . . after serving twenty-five years of incarceration on the sentence of life without parole.

Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.047.1.1.

         The statute requires the Board to hold a hearing to determine whether parole is appropriate. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.047.4. It also enumerates factors that the Board “shall consider”:

(1) Efforts made toward rehabilitation since the offense or offenses occurred, including participation in educational, vocational, or other programs during incarceration, when available;
(2) The subsequent growth and increased maturity of the person since the offense or offenses occurred;
(3) Evidence that the person has accepted accountability for the offense or offenses, except in cases where the person has maintained his or her innocence;
(4) The person's institutional record during incarceration; and
(5) Whether the person remains the same risk to society as he or she did at the time of the initial sentencing.

Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.047.5. The statute also incorporates by reference the following additional factors that the Board must consider (see id.):

(1) The nature and circumstances of the offense committed by the defendant;
(2) The degree of the defendant's culpability in light of his or her age and role in the offense;
(3) The defendant's age, maturity, intellectual capacity, and mental and emotional health and development at the time of the offense;
(4) The defendant's background, including his or her family, home, and community environment;
(5) The likelihood for rehabilitation of the defendant;
(6) The extent of the defendant's participation in the offense;
(7) The effect of familial pressure or peer pressure on the defendant's actions;
(8) The nature and extent of the defendant's prior criminal history, including whether the offense was committed by a person with a prior record of conviction for murder in the first degree, or one or more serious assaultive criminal convictions;
(9) The effect of characteristics attributable to the defendant's youth on the defendant's judgment; and
(10) A statement by the victim or the victim's family member as provided by [other specified statutes].

Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.033.2.

         II. The Alleged Facts[1]

         Plaintiffs allege that, although they now are eligible for parole under Missouri law, they have been denied a meaningful opportunity for release, in violation of their constitutional rights, because of the policies, procedures, and customs of the defendants-the Missouri Director of Corrections and each of the members of the Board.

         Plaintiffs allege that the Board, which has sole authority to grant or deny parole applications, is “a political body long criticized for its arbitrariness, dysfunction, and lack of transparency.” Doc. 22, ¶ 60. The Board also presides over too many hearings to fairly consider the plaintiffs' applications. The full board may decide a prisoner's petition, even when only a subset-often even just one Board member-sits on the hearing panel. The Board has “historically ...


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