Michigan Court Of Appeals Holds Juries Must Decide Sentences Of Juvenile Murderers

On August 20, 2015, the Michigan Court of Appeals held in a criminal case that the Sixth Amendment of the US and Michigan Constitutions requires that a jury - rather than a judge - must decide the punishment for a juvenile murderer.

In People v Skinner, Docket No. 317892, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed a constitutional issue of first impression: who gets to decide the punishment for a juvenile murderer - a judge or a jury? Before Skinner, only judges had the authority under the law to determine the sentence when a child was found guilty of murder.

The Court first recited the facts of the case:

In November 2010, at the age of 17, defendant arranged to have her parents Paul Skinner and Mara Skinner murdered. Specifically,

The victims, defendant’s parents, were viciously attacked in their bed in November 2010. Defendant’s father was killed in the attack and defendant’s mother suffered roughly 25 stab wounds. An investigation led to Jonathan Kurtz, defendant’s boyfriend, and James Preston. The investigation also led to the discovery of a map of the neighborhood and a note containing tips on how to break into defendant’s house and commit the murders. Cell phone records revealed text messages between defendant, Kurtz, and Preston that indicated that the crime had been planned by all three. During an interview with police, defendant implicated Preston, then implicated Kurtz and Preston, and then admitted that she had talked to Kurtz about killing her parents. Defendant said that Kurtz was going to seek Preston’s help. [People v Skinner, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued February 21, 2013 (Docket No. 306903) (slip op at 1).]

Defendant was charged in connection with the attacks and, following a trial, a jury convicted her of first-degree premeditated murder, MCL 750.316(1)(a), attempted murder, MCL 750.91, and conspiracy to commit murder, MCL 750.157a. On September 16, 2011, the trial court sentenced defendant to mandatory life without parole for the first-degree murder conviction, and life sentences each for the attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder convictions. Defendant appealed her convictions and sentences.

While defendant’s appeal was pending, on June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller, 576 US at ___, wherein the Court held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment. Subsequently, this Court affirmed defendant’s convictions and life sentences for attempted murder and conspiracy, but remanded for resentencing on defendant’s first-degree murder conviction to consider the factors set forth in Miller.

On July 11, 2013, the trial court held a resentencing hearing and again sentenced defendant to life without parole for the first-degree murder conviction. Defendant again appealed her sentence. While defendant’s appeal was pending, on March 4, 2014, MCL 769.25 took effect, which was enacted in response to Miller and established a framework for imposing a life without parole sentence upon a juvenile convicted of, inter alia, first-degree murder. Meanwhile, this Court ordered defendant’s appeal held in abeyance pending our Supreme Court’s decision in People v Carp, 496 Mich 440; 852 NW2d 801 (2014), which concerned the retroactivity of Miller. Following the decision in Carp, this Court remanded the case to the trial court for a second resentencing—third sentencing—hearing to be conducted in accordance with MCL 769.25; this Court retained jurisdiction.

On second remand, defendant moved to impanel a jury, arguing that a jury should make the factual findings mandated by MCL 769.25(6) at the resentencing hearing. The trial court denied defendant’s motion and this Court denied defendant’s emergency application for leave to appeal that order. Thereafter, the trial court held the second resentencing hearing on September 18, September 19, and September 24, 2014, and, after hearing evidence from both defendant and the prosecution, the court again sentenced defendant to life without parole for the first-degree murder conviction. Defendant now appeals that sentence as of right, arguing, inter alia, that MCL 769.25 violates her Sixth Amendment right to a jury because it exposes her to a harsher penalty than was otherwise authorized by the jury verdict . . . .

The Court's lengthy analysis - shortened here - of whether a juvenile murderer is entitled to have their sentence determined by a jury - rather than by a judge - followed:

. . . In this case, based solely on the facts that were submitted to the jury, defendant was entitled to a term-of-years sentence. Therefore, because the factual findings required by Miller and MCL 769.25(6) were not part and parcel to the elements submitted to the jury, these facts “pertain to whether the defendant has a legal right to a lesser sentence . . . ],” and merely because the sentencing court has discretion to impose the harsher sentence cannot serve as a substitute for defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury. Id . . . .

To summarize, the default sentence for a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder under MCL 750.316 is a term-of-years prison sentence. MCL 769.25 authorizes a trial court to enhance that sentence to life without parole based on factual findings that were not made by a jury but rather were found by a judge. In this respect, the statute offends the Sixth Amendment as articulated in Apprendi and its progeny. In order to enhance a juvenile’s default sentence to life without parole, absent a waiver, a jury must make findings on the Miller factors as codified at MCL 769.25(6) to determine whether the juvenile’s crime reflects “irreparable corruption” beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, because defendant’s sentence for first-degree murder was imposed in a manner that violated the Sixth Amendment, she is entitled to resentencing on that offense . . . .

The Sixth Amendment requires that, other than a prior conviction, any fact that increases either the floor or the ceiling of a of a criminal defendant’s sentence beyond that which “a judge may impose solely on the basis of facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by defendant,” must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Blakely, 542 US at 296. The default sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder—i.e. the sentence authorized by the jury verdict—is a term-of-years prison sentence. MCL 769.25 authorizes a trial court to increase that sentence to life without the possibility of parole contingent on the trial court’s findings with respect to the Miller factors and any other relevant criteria. Because MCL 769.25 makes an increase in a juvenile defendant’s sentence contingent on factual findings, those findings must be made by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, in this case, because defendant was denied her right to have a jury make the requisite findings under MCL 769.25, she is entitled to resentencing on her first-degree murder conviction . . . .