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Circuit Rejects Argument That Mandatory Life Sentence Violates Eighth Amendment

In United States v. Sierra, the Second Circuit (Newman, Jacobs, Droney) wrote a short published decision that rejected the argument raised by several defendants that it violated the “cruel and unusual” provision of the Eighth Amendment to impose a mandatory life sentence in this case involving convictions for murder in aid of racketeering. 

The Court considered two specific arguments.  First, the defendants all argued that under Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), it was unconstitutional for them to face mandatory life sentences given that they were between the ages of 18 and 22 years old.  In Miller, the Supreme Court held that mandatory life without parole for those under 18 at the time of their crimes violated the Eighth Amendment because a judge or jury should always have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing sentence.  Miller was based in part on scientific research that the defendants here argued also showed that biological factors reduce the moral culpability of adults into their early 20s.  The Circuit’s ruling rejecting the argument was very straight-forward:  the Supreme Court in Miller drew a line at 18 years’ old, and these defendants were older than 18 years’ old.

One defendant, Lopez, made additional arguments based on the fact that he was convicted of a mandatory life offense under a Pinkerton liability theory.[1]  See Pinkerton v. United States, 328 U.S. 640 (1946).  Under Pinkerton, a defendant can be convicted of a substantive offense that they did not commit themselves so long as the offense was a reasonably foreseeable overt act committed by a co-conspirator, in furtherance of the conspiracy.  The Supreme Court held in Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 797 (1982) that the death penalty cannot be imposed in these circumstances—where a murder is committed by others and the defendant does not himself kill, attempt to kill, or intend that a killing take place.  Lopez argued that under the logic of Enmund, it violated the Eighth Amendment for him to receive a mandatory life sentence in these circumstances. 

The Second Circuit rejected this argument.  First, the Circuit held that under Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991), a sentence that is not cruel and unusual does not become so by virtue of being mandatory.  Harmelin also declined to extend Enmund to cases not involving death because, as the Supreme Court has held, death is different.  The Circuit did recognize, however, that recent decisions by the Supreme Court have begun to blur the line between death sentences and mandatory life sentences.  Dissenting justices in Miller expressed a belief that the Miller majority “jettisoned” the distinction between death and non-death cases, but given that the Miller majority reaffirmed Harmelin, the Circuit believed itself constrained by precedent.

Defense counsel in this case presented arguments that might be foreclosed by current precedent but could well be relevant should future precedent change.  It would not be surprising to see the defendants seek certiorari in hopes of changing the state of the law.  Arguments that were only made with respect to the death penalty have increasingly had some currency outside of the death penalty context, as the Circuit explained.  Even if certiorari is denied, these defendants will be in prison for a very long time and it is good that their counsel raised the issue now in order to avoid a procedural default argument on a Section 2255 petition that might be filed many years from now in the future.

-By Danielle Quinn and Harry Sandick

[1] The government rejected the premise of this part of the opinion, arguing that the jury verdict necessarily included a finding that Lopez intended that the murders be done.  From the factual recitation, it is hard to know whether the government was right and the Court did not reach the issue.