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Wolf v. Cassady

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

March 7, 2019

JOSHUA A. WOLF, Petitioner,
v.
JAY CASSADY, Respondent.

          ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS

         Pending is Petitioner's petition for writ of habeas corpus. (Doc. 30.) For the following reasons, the petition is DENIED and the Court declines to issue a certificate of appealability.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Petitioner was sixteen years old when he was convicted of first-degree murder, armed criminal action, and second-degree arson in 2001. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In March 2013, Petitioner filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Missouri Supreme Court, arguing “his sentence was unconstitutional, because he was sentenced to mandatory life without parole for a homicide he committed as a minor.” (Doc. 30, p. 6.)[1] In March 2016, the Missouri Supreme Court granted in part and denied in part Petitioner's request. The Court stated that due to the enactment of Missouri Revised Statute § 558.047, petitioner would be eligible for parole after serving twenty-five years of his original sentence.

         Petitioner then instituted this proceeding. However, due to uncertainty as to whether Petitioner had exhausted all available state remedies, the Court stayed this action. (Doc. 23.) Petitioner then filed another petition for a writ of habeas corpus in state court, this time challenging the constitutionality of § 558.047. The Circuit Court of Cole County denied his petition and the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed. In July 2018, Petitioner filed another petition directly in the Supreme Court of Missouri, which similarly denied the petition.

         On August 9, 2018, Petitioner filed an amended petition for writ of habeas corpus with this Court. (Doc. 30.) In his petition for writ of habeas corpus, Petitioner brings two arguments. First, Petitioner argues his sentence is unconstitutional under Supreme Court precedent which prohibits sentencing juveniles to life without parole without also considering the juvenile's individual circumstances. Second, Petitioner argues that denying habeas relief would violate his right to Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Government argues that Petitioner's first claim is moot because a § 558.047 allows Petitioner to be considered for parole after he has served twenty-five years of his sentence. Thus, the Government argues, Petitioner is no longer serving an unconstitutional sentence of life without the possibility of parole as a juvenile. The Government also argues that the parole hearing contemplated by Missouri law is an adequate and meaningful opportunity for release as set forth in Miller v. Alabama. The Court resolves the parties' arguments below.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a district court can grant habeas relief only if a state court decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or . . . resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C § 2254(d). A decision is contrary to or involves an unreasonable application of Federal law if it is “in conflict with” Federal law. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 388 (2000). “[I]t is not an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law for a state court to decline to apply a specific legal rule that has not been squarely established by [the U.S. Supreme Court].” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (quoting Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 122 (2009)). This determination requires federal judges to “attend with the utmost care to state-court decisions, including all of the reasons supporting their decisions, before concluding that those proceedings were infected by constitutional error sufficiently serious to warrant the issuance of the writ.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. at 386.

         A. Supreme Court Precedent

         Petitioner first claims that his sentence is unconstitutional in light of Roper v. Simmons; Graham v. Florida; and Miller v. Alabama. In Roper, the Supreme Court held that the execution of individuals who were minors at the time of their offense violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 568 (2005). In Graham, the Supreme Court held that (1) the Eighth Amendment prohibits imposing a sentence of life without parole on juvenile offenders who have not committed homicide, and (2) the State must give nonhomicide juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole a “meaningful” opportunity to obtain release. Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74-75 (2010). The Supreme Court extended this reasoning in Miller, holding that the Eighth Amendment “forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479 (2012). Subsequently, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court found Miller's holding to be substantive law that must be applied retroactively. Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718, 734 (2016).

         In light of Montgomery, the Missouri legislature passed Senate Bill 590, 98th General Assembly (codified as Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.047.) Section 558.047 states that any juvenile sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole prior to August 28, 2016, “may submit to the parole board a petition for 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. The statute directs the parole board to hold a hearing to determine whether the defendant should be granted parole. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.047.4. In the hearing, the board is to consider five factors:

(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 ...

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