Florida inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles should be resentenced under guidelines that went into effect last year, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday.
In four separate cases, the justices ordered lower courts to apply the 2014 law to inmates who, as juveniles, were sentenced in the past either to life in prison or to terms that would have effectively kept them behind bars until they die. Two of the inmates were convicted of murder.
The highly anticipated rulings settle the question of whether two seminal U.S. Supreme Court decisions that found life sentences for juveniles violate Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment should apply retroactively. Lower courts were divided on the retroactivity issue.
In a 2010 case, known as Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court banned life sentences without a "meaningful opportunity" for release for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. And in a 2012 ruling known as Miller v. Alabama, the high court barred mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. Juveniles can still face life sentences in such cases, but judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders' maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence.
Under the Florida law passed last year, a juvenile convicted of a murder classified as a capital felony could be sentenced to life in prison after a hearing to determine whether such a sentence is appropriate. If a judge finds that a life sentence is not appropriate, the juvenile would be sentenced to at least 35 years. Also, juveniles convicted in such cases would be entitled to reviews after 25 years.
In Thursday's ruling, the Florida justices concluded that the Miller and Graham rulings constitute "a development of fundamental significance," the standard for retroactivity.
"The patent unfairness of depriving indistinguishable juvenile offenders of their liberty for the rest of their lives, based solely on when their cases were decided, weighs heavily in favor of applying the (U.S.) Supreme Court's decision in Miller retroactively," Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in an opinion ordering a lower court to consider a new sentence for Rebecca Lee Falcon.
Falcon is serving a life sentence for a 1997 murder committed during a botched robbery in Bay County, when she was 15.
Anthony Duwayne Horsley, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2006 shooting death of a convenience-store owner in Brevard County when Horsley was 17, was also granted another review.
"It's definitely a victory for child advocates who've been asking to get the Graham decision implemented in a widespread fashion," 2nd Judicial Circuit Public Defender Nancy Daniels said.
The justices also ordered a resentencing for Leighdon Henry, who was tried as an adult for multiple non-homicide offenses, including sexual battery, committed when he was 17, and was sentenced to life in prison plus 60 additional years. After the Graham decision, Henry's sentence was reduced to 90 years.
But even the reduced sentence would not give Henry the opportunity for reform, Justice James E.C. Perry noted in a 12-page opinion.
"We conclude that Graham prohibits the state trial courts from sentencing juvenile non-homicide offenders to prison terms that ensure these offenders will be imprisoned without obtaining a meaningful opportunity to obtain future early release during their natural lives based on their demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation," Perry wrote.
State Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island), a former prosecutor who was instrumental in crafting and passing the juvenile sentencing law last year, said legislators intentionally left the issue of retroactivity to the courts to decide.
"We did our job. The court did their job today. The system moves forward. Clearly, by adjudicating these cases, that then becomes precedent and other courts will take the precedent set and apply it to other cases throughout the state," Bradley said.
Thursday's rulings should not have any impact on the 2014 law, Bradley said.
But the retroactivity could present an onerous task for judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers, said 8th Judicial Circuit State Attorney William Cervone.
According to a staff analysis of last year's bill, Thursday's court action means that at least 300 inmates could have their sentences revisited and possibly reduced. The Falcon decision gave inmates who were sentenced to life as juveniles two years to ask the courts for a new sentence.
"We'll have to contact victims, reanalyze what the sentencing options in light of Graham and Miller are as to each applicable case," Cervone said. "It's a big deal individually and it's a big deal collectively. But by their nature, they are complicated, bad cases. So each case individually is going to be, I assume, a very contested, intense kind of hearing. It's going to be very work-intensive for everybody."
But Daniels, the public defender, embraced the opportunity to revisit the sentences.
"It's a welcome burden," she said.