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Brown v. Precythe

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

August 1, 2019

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


          Nanette K. Laughrey, United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Norman Brown, Ralph McElroy, Sidney Roberts, and Theron Roland (together, “Plaintiffs”) are serving mandatory sentences of life without parole for homicide offenses committed when they were less than 18 years of age. Doc. 143 (Plaintiffs' Suggestions in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment), p. 1. The United States Supreme Court, however, has held that sentencing a juvenile to a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment. This is because the mind of a child is structurally different from the mind of an adult.

         As explained in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012),

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).

         “Parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through late adolescence.” Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 68 (2010). 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 fails to take 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).

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

         In Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), the Supreme Court held that Miller applies retroactively because it announced a rule of substantive law. A state need not guarantee freedom to the juvenile offender, but it 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 the truth of Miller's central intuition-that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”). The cases “bar life without parole . . . for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Montgomery, 136 S.Ct 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.

         On May 12, 2016, the Missouri legislature passed Senate Bill 590, 98th General Assembly (“SB 590”). In relevant part, SB 590 provides that any person sentenced as a juvenile to life without parole prior to August 28, 2016, “may submit to the parole board a petition for a review of his or her sentence, regardless of whether the case is final for purposes of appeal, 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 “if the defendant shall be granted parole.” Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.047.4.

         Each of the Plaintiffs subsequently petitioned for but was denied parole.

         I. Factual Background

         a) The Named Plaintiffs

         1. Norman Brown

         Plaintiff Norman Brown was in seventh grade when he was arrested for the offenses for which he is now serving time. Doc. 138-20 (Pre-Hearing Report for Norman Brown), p. 9. Brown's prehearing report for parole review acknowledged that he was only 15 years old at the time of the underlying offense, that his participation appeared to be the result of peer pressure, and that it “d[id] not appear he had a direct involvement in the death” of the homicide victim. Id., p. 11.

         Brown is, by Defendant's own standards, a model inmate. Doc. 147 (Defendants['] Suggestions in Opposition to Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment), p. 75. Although he accumulated multiple conduct violations in his youth, in recent years, the violations tapered off and then ceased. Id. Brown has improved his conduct and taken responsibility for his actions. Id. The prehearing report that the institutional parole officer created notes Brown's involvement in many rehabilitative programs and states that, “[a]t this point, it does not appear Brown poses a risk to society . . . .” Doc. 147, p. 76. Nonetheless, “th[e] officer respectfully recommend[ed] Brown be scheduled for a reconsideration hearing in May 2022, ” and not granted parole, “due to the circumstances of the offense” alone. Doc. 138-20, p. 11.

         Outside of noting that it is a juvenile case, the Board Action Sheet does not discuss Brown's youth or immaturity at the time of the underlying offense. Doc. 138-35 (Board Action Sheet for Norman Brown). The sole basis for Brown's parole denial listed on the sheet was the circumstances of the underlying offense. Doc. 147, p. 78.

         2. Ralph McElroy Plaintiff Ralph McElroy's prehearing report notes that he was 17 years of age when the offense for which he was convicted took place. Id., p. 2. [XXXXX] Id., p. 6.

         The materials submitted to the Board concerning Plaintiff Ralph McElroy include certificates of training for various courses, a Certificate of High School Equivalence, an award for outstanding service at his job, and a certificate for volunteering 600 or more hours towards restorative justice reparative activities. Doc. 138-51 (November 30, 2016 letter from Matthew D. Knepper, with enclosures), at 13-22. McElroy's conduct violations, some of which were serious, ceased in 2012. The prehearing report states that “[h]e only began taking any type of programming after he was informed that he would be given an opportunity for release.” Doc. 138-21 (Pre-Hearing Report for Ralph McElroy), p. 8. (The Supreme Court decided Miller in 2012.)

         McElroy has always denied committing the offense for which he is serving time; nonetheless, the prehearing report states that “MCELROY takes no accountability for the present offense” and “showed no remorse for his actions.” Id. The prehearing report recommended that he be scheduled for reconsideration in December 2021 “[d]ue to his attitude regarding the offense and the victim . . . .” Id.

         Neither McElroy's Board Action Sheet nor the supplement contains any notation regarding his youth or immaturity at the time of the underlying offense. Doc. 147, p. 79. McElroy was denied release based in part upon the circumstances surrounding the underlying offense. Id., p. 80.

         3. Sidney Roberts

         Plaintiff Sidney Roberts was 17 years old and under the influence of alcohol and marijuana when he committed the offense for which he is serving time. Doc. 138-16 (Pre-Hearing Report for Sidney Roberts), p. 3. At the time of his commitment, he was found to function at a sixth-grade level. Doc. 138-22 (Diagnostic Center Report for Sidney Roberts dated December 6, 1989), p. 3.

         A forensic psychological evaluation noted that, as a child, he was exposed to his father's physical abuse of his mother and was himself subjected to physical abuse, including whippings with belts and other household items. Doc. 138-17 (Forensic Psychological Report for Sidney Roberts), p. 3. Both of his parents used cocaine. Doc. 138-16, p. 11. Yet, neither the Board Action Sheet nor the supplement thereto contains any notation regarding Roberts's youth or immaturity at the time of the underlying offense. Doc. 147, pp. 82-83.

         The pre-hearing report notes that, since 2009, Roberts' conduct in prison “has improved” and “maturation seems to have occurred.” Doc. 138-16, p. 12. A forensic psychological report opined that Roberts “had no problems with aggression for the past 15 years.” Doc. 147, p. 81. The supplement notes “Long work HY within DOC, ” including work in a clothing factory, “Improved conduct, ” “Obtain HSE, ” and “participating programs, ” and that he has had no conduct violations since 2009, but it does not provide details regarding his efforts toward rehabilitation. Doc. 138-37 (Board Action Sheet for Sidney Roberts), at 4; Doc. 147, pp. 82-83. Neither the Board Action Sheet nor the Supplement contains any notation regarding the forensic psychological report. Id., p. 82. Indeed, the Hearing Panel Comments box on Roberts' Board Action Sheet is blank. Id. Roberts' notice of denial cited the circumstances of the underlying offense alone as the basis for his parole denial. Id. p. 83.

         4. Theron Roland

         Plaintiff Theron Roland's prehearing report states that he was 17 and under the influence of marijuana at the time of the offense for which he is serving time. Doc. 138-19 (Pre-Hearing Report for Theron Roland), p. 4. His report of the circumstances surrounding the crime suggested that he was “initially a follower in the offense, ” and he acknowledged that “peer pressure was a factor in the offense.” Id.

         [XXXXX] Id., p. 8. Roland had begun using alcohol at 11 and ...

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