In this criminal law appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), is a significant change in the law that may require the resentencing of persons serving natural life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. In Miller, the United States Supreme Court held the 8th Amendment prohibits the imposition of mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. 132 S. Ct. at 2469. The United States Supreme Court subsequently ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), that its holding in Miller was a new substantive rule of constitutional law that must be applied retroactively by state courts. Under this new rule, as interpreted by the Arizona Supreme Court, “sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but ‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.'” Id. at 734 (quoting Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2469). Stated differently, “life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity.” Id. at 735.
In light of Montgomery, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled the two defendants whose cases were before it (Joey Healer and Gregory Valencia, Jr.) were entitled to evidentiary hearings on their respective petitions for post-conviction relief because their petitions made colorable claims that Healer and Valencia may be entitled to resentencing under Miller. The Court further held that, at their evidentiary hearings, Healer and Valencia “will have an opportunity to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that their crimes did not reflect irreparable corruption but instead transient immaturity. Only if they meet this burden will they establish that their natural life sentences are unconstitutional, thus entitling them to resentencing.”
We here consider whether the trial court erred by summarily denying petitions for post-conviction relief alleging that natural life sentences for homicides committed as juveniles are unconstitutional in light of Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012). Because the United States Supreme Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), that Miller applies retroactively and “sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but ‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,’” id. at 734 (quoting Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2469), we reverse the trial court’s rulings and remand for further proceedings to determine if petitioners are entitled to relief.
—State v. Valencia/Healer, No. CR-16-0156-PR, slip op. at 2, ¶ 1 (Ariz. Dec. 23, 2016)
The facts of the underlying crimes committed by Healer and Valencia are not for the faint of heart. In 1994, Healer (who was 16 years old at the time) borrowed a sawed-off rifle and entered the home of Chester Iserman, an elderly man who had given Healer odd jobs so he could earn money. Healer shot Iserman through the eye, killing him, and then stole his truck. In 1995, Valencia (who was 17 years old at the time) and a 16-year-old accomplice stole a bicycle from an enclosed patio in a condominium complex. When they attempted to enter the patio of another condominium, the owner of that condominium confronted the youth and Valencia fatally shot him.
Both Healer and Valencia were convicted of first-degree murder for their crimes. Each was sentenced to natural life imprisonment under A.R.S. § 13-703 (Supp. 1995), meaning under the current state of Arizona law neither is eligible for parole or early release from prison–ever. After the United States Supreme Court decided Miller in 2012, Healer and Valencia each petitioned the superior court for post-conviction relief under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g), contending Miller constituted a significant change in the law that, if it applied to their cases, would probably overturn their sentences. The superior court summarily denied Healer’s and Valencia’s petitions, concluding the sentencing court in each defendant’s case had complied with Miller because it had considered each defendant’s age, among other mitigating factors, before making the non-mandatory decision to impose a natural life sentence. In a consolidated appeal, the court of appeals reversed the superior court’s decision with respect to both Healer and Valencia, ruling that Miller (as broadened by Montgomery) is a significant change in the law for purposes of Rule 32.1(g) that entitles Healer and Valencia to be resentenced.
Under Rule 32.1(g), Ariz. R. Crim. P., a defendant is entitled to post-conviction relief when “[t]here has been a significant change in the law that if determined to apply to [a] defendant’s case would probably overturn the defendant’s conviction or sentence.” After considering the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller in the context of the law that existed when Healer and Valencia were sentenced in 1995 and 1996, respectively, the Arizona Supreme Court concluded:
Miller, as clarified by Montgomery, represents a “clear brake from the past” for purposes of Rule 32.1(g). Arizona law, when Healer and Valencia were sentenced, allowed a trial court to impose a natural life sentence on a juvenile convicted of first degree murder without distinguishing crimes that reflected “irreparable corruption” rather than the “transient immaturity of youth.” Because Miller reflects a new substantive rule of constitutional law, we are required by Montgomery to give this rule retroactive effect.
The Arizona Supreme Court rejected the state’s argument that Miller only requires a sentencing court to consider a juvenile’s age as a mitigating factor before imposing a natural life sentence–as occurred in the case of both Healer and Valencia. The Court cited Montgomery‘s declaration that “[e]ven if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity,” id. at 734, as authority directly contrary to the state’s argument.
The Arizona Supreme Court’s decision in this case appears to have established a framework for resolving Rule 32.1(g) petitions for post-conviction relief based on Miller. To obtain post-conviction relief, a defendant who was sentenced to natural life imprisonment for a crime he or she committed as a juvenile must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that his or her crime did not reflect irreparable corruption but instead reflected transient immaturity. Only if the petitioner successfully meets this burden will his or her natural life sentence be unconstitutional under Miller, thereby entitling the petitioner to be resentenced. The Arizona Supreme Court admonished the state that in cases where it “does not contest that the crime reflected transient immaturity, it should stipulate to the defendant’s resentencing in light of Montgomery and Miller.”
The Arizona Supreme Court’s decision in this case also leaves open some interesting questions that will certainly need to be fleshed out by subsequent appellate decisions. Most prominent among those questions is what standard should be used in determining whether a particular defendant’s crime reflected “irreparable corruption” as opposed to “transient immaturity.” This is a question that courts around the country must grapple with in the aftermath of Montgomery. In a passionate concurrence, Justice Bolick (joined by Vice Chief Justice Pelander) lamented that the majority in Montgomery had already predetermined that the “vast majority” of murders committed by juveniles “reflect the transient immaturity of youth” rather than “irreparable corruption,” meaning most juvenile offenders cannot be constitutionally sentenced to natural life imprisonment. Exactly what circumstances will be necessary for a sentencing court to determine a juvenile offender’s crime reflected “irreparable corruption,” thereby justifying a natural life sentence, is an interesting question that courts in Arizona and elsewhere must address moving forward.
In a not-so-subtle hint to the legislature, the Arizona Supreme Court noted in parting that the need for evidentiary and resentencing hearings for juvenile offenders sentenced to natural life imprisonment prior to the United States Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller and Montgomery “could be obviated, as Montgomery recognized, ‘by permitting juvenile offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.’ While this result could be achieved by the legislature amending A.R.S. § 13-716 to apply to inmates serving natural life sentences for murders committed as juveniles, it is not a change that can be mandated by judicial decision.”
You can read the Arizona Supreme Court’s published opinion in the case here.