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Ira v. Janecka

Supreme Court of New Mexico

March 9, 2018

JOEL IRA, Petitioner,
v.
JAMES JANECKA, Warden, Lea County Correctional Facility, Hobbs, New Mexico, Respondent.

          ORIGINAL PROCEEDING ON CERTIORARI Jerry H. Ritter, Jr., District Judge

          Gary C. Mitchell, P.C. Gary C. Mitchell Ruidoso, NM for Petitioner

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Laurie Pollard Blevins, Assistant Attorney General Santa Fe, NM for Respondent

          Rory L. Rank Las Cruces, NM Juvenile Law Center Marsha L. Levick Philadelphia, PA for Amicus Curiae Juvenile Law Center

          OPINION

          EDWARD L. CHÁVEZ, Justice

         {¶1} During the last thirteen years the Supreme Court of the United States, relying on neuroscientific evidence of adolescent behavior, issued three opinions declaring that certain sentences imposed on juvenile offenders violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (prohibiting the imposition of the death penalty for a crime committed by a juvenile); Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) (holding that no juvenile could be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a nonhomicide offense); Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (striking down a statute that required courts to sentence a juvenile convicted of murder to life without parole). These cases created a special category under the Eighth Amendment for juvenile offenders whose culpability is mitigated by adolescence and immaturity. The cases recognize that a juvenile is more likely to be rehabilitated than an adult and therefore should receive a meaningful opportunity to obtain release by demonstrating maturity and rehabilitation. In Montgomery v. Louisiana, U.S.,, 136 S.Ct. 718, 736-37 (2016), the Supreme Court endorsed the principles in Roper, Graham, and Miller and held that Miller applies retroactively because it announced a substantive rule of constitutional law.

         {¶2} Nearly twenty years ago, Petitioner, Joel Ira, was sentenced as a juvenile to

         91½ years in the New Mexico Department of Corrections after he pled no contest to several counts of criminal sexual penetration and intimidation of a witness-crimes which he committed when he was fourteen and fifteen years old. Under the relevant Earned Meritorious Deduction Act (EMDA), NMSA 1978, § 33-2-34(A) (1988, amended 2015), [1] Ira can be eligible for parole when he has served one-half of his sentence-approximately 46 years-if he maintains good behavior while incarcerated. He will be approximately 62 years old when he can first be eligible for parole.

         {¶3} Ira petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus to make the central argument that his sentence is equivalent to a life sentence without parole and therefore constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article II, Section 13 of the New Mexico Constitution. He relies on Roper and its progeny for his argument. Whether the rationale of these cases, and in particular Graham, should be applied to a term-of-years sentence for the commission of multiple crimes is the preliminary question we must answer. If Graham applies, we must next consider whether Ira's long consecutive sentence effectively deprives him of a meaningful opportunity to obtain release by demonstrating his maturity and rehabilitation, thereby violating the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

         {¶4} Other courts are split on whether to apply Graham when a juvenile receives a a multiple term-of-years sentence for the commission of multiple crimes. We conclude that Graham applies when a multiple term-of-years sentence will in all likelihood keep a juvenile in prison for the rest of his or her life because the juvenile is deprived of a meaningful opportunity to obtain release by demonstrating his or her maturity and rehabilitation. In this case, Ira can be eligible for a parole hearing when he is 62 years old if he demonstrates good behavior under the EMDA. Therefore, based on the record before us, we conclude that Ira has a meaningful opportunity to obtain release by demonstrating his maturity and rehabilitation before the Parole Board. We find the remaining issues raised in the petition to be without merit and therefore deny the petition.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         {¶5} The underlying conduct for which Ira pled no contest is discussed extensively in State v. Ira, 2002-NMCA-037, 132 N.M. 8, 43 P.3d 359. Ira pled no contest to ten counts of criminal sexual penetration, one count of aggravated battery (great bodily harm), one count of aggravated battery against a household member, and one count of intimidation of a witness. Id. ¶¶ 2, 4. Ira committed these crimes when he was fourteen and fifteen years old. Id. ¶ 2. The victim of Ira's criminal sexual penetration and intimidation of a witness offenses was his stepsister, who was six years younger than Ira. Id.

         {¶6} The district court had the discretion to invoke an adult sentence or a juvenile disposition. NMSA 1978, § 32A-2-20(A) (1996, amended 2009). The district court invoked an adult sentence because the court found that Ira was "not amenable to treatment or rehabilitation as a child in available facilities, " and Ira was "not eligible for commitment to an institution for the developmentally disabled or mentally disordered." Section 32A-2-20(B)(1)-(2). The district court made these findings persuaded by the seriousness of the crimes and the effect on the young victim. The district court also noted that although Ira's lifestyle "was not one to be envied, " the experts testified that Ira was "devoid of conscience and devoid of empathy for other human beings." The district court ultimately sentenced Ira to 91½ years in the custody of the New Mexico Department of Corrections.

         {¶7} The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that his sentence was not cruel and unusual punishment. Ira, 2002-NMCA-037, ¶ 1. The Court compared the gravity of Ira's offense against the severity of his sentence to determine whether the punishment was grossly disproportionate to the offense. Id. ¶ 19. It considered the severity of Ira's conduct, the toll of that conduct on his victim, and his lack of remorse and likelihood of committing similar acts in the future. Id. In light of these facts, the Court of Appeals decided his sentence was not "grossly disproportionate as to shock the general conscience or violate principles of fundamental fairness." Id. It acknowledged that "the decision to sentence a child as an adult is an extreme sanction that cannot be undertaken lightly." Id. ¶ 20. Yet, it emphasized that "the imposition of a lengthy, adult sentence on a juvenile does not, in itself, amount to cruel and unusual punishment." Id.

         {¶8} In his special concurrence, Chief Judge Bosson expressed concern over the length of Ira's sentence. Since the earliest Ira can be eligible for a parole hearing is after serving 45 years of his sentence, Chief Judge Bosson noted, "[f]or one so young, this is effectively a life sentence. One who goes into prison a teenager and comes out a man at the age of retirement has forfeited most of his life." Id. ¶ 45 (Bosson, C.J., specially concurring).

         {¶9} Chief Judge Bosson also observed the irony of the sentence when compared with the underlying offenses for which Ira pled no contest, explaining that

[i]f [Ira] had eventually killed his victim, perhaps to protect himself from prosecution for his other crimes, he could have received a life sentence as an adult, but would have become eligible for parole after a "mere" thirty years. Thus, although [he] commits crimes which, however gruesome, are less than first degree murder, he receives a sentence that is effectively fifty percent longer.

Id. ¶ 46.

         {¶10} Ira filed a writ of habeas corpus in the district court that sentenced him pursuant to Rule 5-802 NMRA. In it he argued that (1) his sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment and Article II, Section 13 of the New Mexico Constitution; (2) the trial court erred in failing to set aside his plea agreement; and (3) he was denied effective assistance of counsel. The district court denied his petition. We granted certiorari pursuant to Rule 12-501 NMRA.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. The Eighth Amendment Forbids a Term-of-Years Sentence That Deprives a Juvenile of a Meaningful Opportunity to Obtain Release

         {¶11} Ira's argument that his 91½-year sentence is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment and Section II, Article 13 of the New Mexico Constitution is a question of constitutional law, which we review de novo. See State v. DeGraff, 2006-NMSC-011, ¶ 6, 139 N.M. 211, 131 P.3d 61. We do not address the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment under Section II, Article 13 because we conclude that the Eighth Amendment affords the necessary protection in this case. See State v. Gomez, 1997-NMSC-006, ¶ 19, 122 N.M. 777, 932 P.2d 1 (holding that when an asserted right is protected under the United States Constitution, the claim under the New Mexico Constitution is not reached).

         {¶12} The Eighth Amendment provides that "[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The United States Supreme Court looks beyond a historical interpretation of cruel and unusual punishment and instead looks to "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958) (plurality opinion). The Court emphasizes that "[e]mbodied in the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishments is the 'precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to [the] offense.'" Graham, 560 U.S. at 59 (quoting Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 367 (1910)). The Eighth Amendment "does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence but rather forbids only extreme sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crime." Graham, 560 U.S. at 59-60 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Some punishments are so grossly disproportionate that the Court has imposed "categorical bans on sentencing practices based on mismatches between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of the penalty." Miller, 567 U.S. at 470.

         {¶13} The Supreme Court has imposed several categorical bans on juvenile sentencing. In Roper, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment bars the death penalty for an offender who committed his or her offense before the age of eighteen. 543 U.S. at 568. In Graham, [2] the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile offenders from being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a nonhomicide offense. 560 U.S. at 74. In Miller, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a State from imposing a mandatory sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders. 567 U.S. at 470.

         {¶14} The first issue we address is whether the analysis of juvenile sentencing in Roper, Graham, and Miller should be applied to multiple term-of-years sentences. Some jurisdictions have held that these cases do not reach multiple term-of-years sentences for multiple non-homicide crimes. See State v. Kasic, 265 P.3d 410, 411, 415-16 (Ariz.Ct.App. 2011) (holding that "Graham does not categorically bar the sentence[] imposed" on a juvenile offender convicted of "thirty-two felonies arising from six arsons and one attempted arson committed over a one-year period beginning when he was seventeen years of age"); State v. Brown, 118 So.3d 332, 341 (La. 2013) (observing that Graham did not include any "analysis of sentences for multiple convictions and provide[d] no guidance on how to handle such sentences"); Vasquez v. Commw., 781 S.E.2d 920, 925 (Va. 2016) (holding that Graham is not implicated for "multiple term-of-years sentences imposed on multiple crimes that, by virtue of the accumulation, exceed[] the criminal defendant's life expectancy"); Lucero v. People, 2017 CO 49, ¶ 19 ("Multiple sentences imposed for multiple offenses do not become a sentence of life without parole, even though they may result in a lengthy term of incarceration.").

         {¶15} Other jurisdictions reject the narrow interpretation espoused by these aforementioned courts, largely concluding that such a narrow interpretation is inconsistent with Graham's requirement that a juvenile be given a meaningful opportunity for release based on the juvenile's demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. In Henry v. State, 175 So.3d 675, 676 (Fla. 2015), the Florida Supreme Court considered whether Graham governed a juvenile offender's challenge to his 90-year aggregate sentence for his convictions of sexual battery while possessing a weapon, robbery, kidnapping, carjacking, burglary, and possession of marijuana. The Henry court applied Graham to the sentence reasoning that "the Graham Court had no intention of limiting its new categorical rule to sentences denominated under the exclusive term 'life in prison.'" Id. at 680. The Court emphasized that the differences noted in Graham between a juvenile and an adult, which called into question the constitutionality of a life-without-parole sentence, provide an equally compelling reason to question the constitutionality of lengthy term-of-years sentences. Id. And just as the Graham Court held that life-without-parole sentences are not justified by penological theories, 560 U.S. at 71-75, the Henry court held that lengthy term-of-years sentences are not justified by the penological theory of rehabilitation, which provides the "only . . . valid constitutional basis for sentencing juvenile nonhomicide offenders." 175 So.3d at 679, 680.

         {¶16} Other jurisdictions applying Graham to term-of-years sentences offer different rationales for doing so. See State v. Boston, 363 P.3d 453, 457 (Nev. 2015) (permitting courts to sentence a juvenile non-homicide offender "undermine[s] the [Supreme] Court's goal of 'prohibit[ing] States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society'") (third alteration in original) (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 75); State v. Zuber, 152 A.3d 197, 211 (N.J. 2017) (reasoning that there is no practical difference between a juvenile who receives life without parole and a juvenile who receives "multiple term-of-years sentences that, in all likelihood, will keep him in jail for the rest of his life"); Budder v. Addison, 851 F.3d 1047, 1053 n.4 (10th Cir. 2017) (interpreting Graham to include "any sentence that would deny a juvenile nonhomicide offender a realistic opportunity to obtain release, regardless of the label a state places on that sentence").

         {¶17} Some jurisdictions have applied Graham when the sentence may provide for release before the juvenile's death but forecloses the opportunity for the juvenile to have a meaningful life outside of prison. See State v. Moore, 2016-Ohio-8288, 76 N.E.3d 1127, cert. denied, Ohio v. Moore, U.S.,, 138 S.Ct. 62 (2017) (determining that a sentence that allows juvenile offenders to "breathe their last breaths" outside the prison walls is not the "meaningful opportunity" envisioned by the Graham Court). The Supreme Court of Connecticut articulated the same concern:

A juvenile offender is typically put behind bars before he has had the chance to exercise the rights and responsibilities of adulthood, such as establishing a career, marrying, raising a family, or voting. Even assuming the juvenile offender does live to be released, after a half century of incarceration, he will have irreparably lost the opportunity to engage meaningfully in many of these activities and will be left with seriously diminished prospects for his quality of life for the few years he has left. A juvenile ...

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