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The U.S. Supreme Court June 12 upheld the life sentence of a man who raped a 62-year-old woman when he was 16 ( Virginia v. LeBlanc , 2017 BL 198033, U.S., No. 16-1177, review granted and reversed 6/12/17 ).
The high court applied evolving norms of juvenile justice in the limited procedural context of habeas corpus review. A state prisoner is eligible for habeas relief if the underlying state court ruling was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.”
The Supreme Court’s decision reversing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is both “narrow” in scope and “disappointing,” according to juvenile justice experts who spoke to Bloomberg BNA about the case.
The decision is also “surprising in some ways,” Michael R. Doucette, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Lynchburg, Va., who has worked as a prosecutor since 1984, told Bloomberg BNA.
Dennis LeBlanc, now in his mid-30s, was sentenced to life in prison in Virginia state court for the rape he committed as a teen.
On appeal, LeBlanc sought to present his then-youth as a mitigating factor, hoping to avoid a life sentence.
That required the court to apply Graham v. Florida, a landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision.
Life sentences without parole for nonhomicide juvenile offenders are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, the high court said in Graham. Courts need to provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” the court said.
Virginia abolished parole, but the state courts approved LeBlanc’s sentence because under state law he had the prospect of “geriatric release,” which allows the parole board to release prisoners over age 60. It doesn’t require consideration of an offender’s youth at the time of his crime.
Applied to juveniles, the Virginia release program violates Graham, the Fourth Circuit said, affirming the federal district court’s grant of LeBlanc’s habeas petition. The Virginia law doesn’t give juvenile offenders the “meaningful opportunity” for release that Graham requires, the circuit court said.
Under federal habeas law, the Fourth Circuit didn’t give enough deference to the Virginia state court’s application of Graham, the Supreme Court said in the unanimous, unsigned opinion.
It wasn’t unreasonable for the state court to find its geriatric release program complied with Graham, it said, reversing the circuit court.
The high court decided the case without holding oral argument, granting Virginia’s petition for review and reversing the Fourth Circuit in the same breath.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a solo concurrence. The Virginia parole board can’t deny a juvenile offender parole “for any reason whatsoever,” but instead has to take “rehabilitation and maturity” into account, she emphasized.
LeBlanc’s counsel didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The state declined comment.
The decision here “is quite narrow, and it neither rules on the wisdom of Virginia’s approach to releasing juvenile offenders once they are elderly, nor does it provide other states with a roadmap for how to implement Graham,” Michele Deitch, Senior Lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin School of Law, told Bloomberg BNA via email.
“The opinion is focused simply on whether the lower court’s ruling was unreasonable in its interpretation of Graham,” Deitch, who holds a joint appointment at the University’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said.
Professor Kimberly Thomas, of the University of Michigan Law School, also stressed the limited nature of the court’s holding.
“The case doesn’t decide the question of whether the geriatric release program complies with Graham,” Thomas, clinical professor at the law school’s juvenile justice clinic, told Bloomberg BNA. “The court only held it was not unreasonable for the Virginia state court to find its release program did not violate Graham,” Thomas said, noting the decision arose in the habeas context.
It’s “too hard to tell” how the Supreme Court would rule on the broader question whether the release program violates Graham, she said.
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case is “disappointing,” professor Deitch, who has over 30 years’ experience working on criminal justice and juvenile justice policy issues, said.
That’s because it overlooks Graham‘s recognition “that children are different than adults, and should be treated differently for purposes of sentencing,” Deitch said.
Given that recognition, “it seems inhumane and wasteful to continue punishing someone long beyond the time when they may have become rehabilitated,” Deitch, who helped draft the American Bar Association’s Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners, said.
Under Virginia’s release system, “a youth would not be eligible for release until almost four decades in prison have passed,” she said.
The high court’s reversal of the Fourth Circuit is “surprising in some ways,” Doucette, the Virginia prosecutor, told Bloomberg BNA.
He noted recent Supreme Court decisions that, starting in 2005, have increasingly treated juveniles more delicately than adults.
Some in the law enforcement community expected that the Supreme Court would continue this trend, Doucette, who is also a board member of the National District Attorneys Association, said. The private association was founded in 1950 “by local prosecutors to give a focal point to advance their causes and issues at the national level,” according to its website.
But Doucette also noted the high court left open the possibility of striking down the geriatric release program, if the court were to rule directly on the merits outside of the habeas context.
Given the “limited nature of the holding,” the court’s ruling for the government is “less surprising,” he said.
The biggest immediate impact of LeBlanc could be legislative, Doucette, who chairs the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ legislative committee, said. The association supports law enforcement aims, including legislation.
A measure that was pending in the Virginia legislature would have re-introduced parole for juvenile offenders who had served at least 25 years, he said. The commonwealth association had supported the legislation.
But now that Virginia’s geriatric release program has been upheld, at least in this limited context, that juvenile parole legislation might go away, he said.
Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery, Ala., represented LeBlanc. The Virginia Office of the Attorney General, Richmond, Va., represented the state.
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