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McCombs v. Lewis

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

March 20, 2019

JASON LEWIS, et al., [1] Respondents.



         This matter is before the Court on Missouri state prisoner Marcus McCombs' petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Because I do not have jurisdiction over McCombs' claims, I will dismiss the petition.


         In December 1997, McCombs was sentenced in the Circuit Court of St. Louis City, Missouri, to a term of life imprisonment without eligibility for parole for murder first degree, a consecutive term of life imprisonment with parole for armed criminal action, and consecutive terms of seven years' imprisonment for burglary first degree and felony stealing. McCombs was a juvenile at the time he committed the offenses. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. State v. McCombs, 987 S.W.2d 511 (Mo.Ct.App. 1999). McCombs thereafter filed a motion for post-conviction relief under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 29.15, which was denied.[2]

         On June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), in which it held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders. The Court reasoned that “[m]andatory 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, ” the “family and home environment that surrounds him - and from which he cannot usually extricate himself - no matter how brutal or dysfunctional, ” the “circumstances of the homicide offense, ” and “the possibility of rehabilitation[.]” Id. at 477-78. Based on Miller, McCombs filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Missouri Supreme Court in June 2013, arguing that he was entitled to have his conviction and sentence vacated and/or be resentenced given the unconstitutionality of his original sentence.

         On January 27, 2016, while McCombs' petition was still pending, the United States Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that Miller announced a new substantive constitutional rule that applied retroactively to cases on collateral review. 136 S.Ct. 718, 736 (2016). The Court clarified, however, that this retroactive application “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.” Id. Regarding this remedy, the Court cited a Wyoming statute that allows a juvenile convicted of homicide to be eligible for parole after 25 years of incarceration. Id. (citing Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-10-301(c) (2013)). The Court specifically held that “[a]llowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity - and who have since matured - will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.” Id.

         On March 15, 2016, the Missouri Supreme Court issued an order in McCombs' habeas case and in all other similarly situated cases, stating that the Missouri General Assembly had yet to enact a constitutionally valid sentencing provision in accordance with Miller and Montgomery. Therefore, the Missouri Supreme Court granted McCombs' petition in part and ordered that he (and those similarly situated) would be eligible to apply for parole after 25 years' imprisonment on their sentences of life without parole unless their sentences were otherwise brought into conformity with Miller and Montgomery by the action of the governor or enactment of necessary legislation.

         McCombs' Federal Habeas Petition

         On March 16, 2016, one day after the Missouri Supreme Court's order, McCombs filed this federal habeas petition raising two grounds for relief. First, McCombs claimed that the Missouri Supreme Court's March 15 order violated his right to due process because it illegally altered his sentence and upheld his conviction for first degree murder. McCombs argued specifically that the Missouri Supreme Court had no authority to alter sentencing statutes or create a new sentence, given that that is a legislative function. In his second ground for relief, McCombs argued that the Missouri Supreme Court's March 15 order denied him the right to a reasonable opportunity for release as required under Miller and Montgomery, given that, under the terms of the order, the parole board retained its discretion as to whether to grant parole.

         Respondents filed their response to McCombs' claims on June 13, 2016, and noted that McCombs had filed a motion in the Missouri Supreme Court for rehearing and that the motion remained pending. Given the pendency of this state-court action, respondents argued that the claims raised in the federal petition were unexhausted and, further, that I should decline to exercise jurisdiction over the petition under the Younger[3] abstention doctrine. Respondents also argued that the claims were without merit. Although given the opportunity, McCombs did not reply to the respondents' response.

         Subsequent Action

         On July 13, 2016, the governor signed into law Missouri Senate Bill No. 590 (SB 590), 98th General Assembly, which states, in relevant part:

1. 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 regardless of whether the case is ...

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