By Michael Mitchell

Today, in the criminal case of Johnson v. Ponton, a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, upholding the petitioner’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a capital murder and rape conviction.

Petitioner Challenges Life Sentence Based on New Supreme Court Precedent

The Fourth Circuit considered whether the district court’s dismissal of the petitioner’s habeas corpus petition challenging his life sentence.  The court evaluated whether the rule announced in the Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama can apply retroactively on collateral review.

Mandatory Life Imprisonment Without Parole for Rapist & Murderer

The petitioner Shermaine Ali Johnson was convicted of capital murder and rape in 1998 at the age of sixteen.  Johnson was found guilty, and given his two prior rape convictions, two separate juries imposed the death sentence in spite of the his age.  However, the Supreme Court of Virginia commuted Johnson’s sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole because he was under eighteen.  His conviction and sentence became final in 2005, and seven years later, the Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, prompting Johnson to petition for collateral review in 2013.

Mandatory Life Sentence Without Parole for Children Violates the Eighth Amendment

In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole imposed on a homicide offender who was under the age of eighteen at the time of the offense violates the Eighth Amendment.  The court was concerned with the inherent differences between children and adults in finding that the practice constituted cruel and unusual punishment, although the Miller rule stopped short of categorically barring the death penalty for children.

Judicial Stay Results in Supreme Court Clarification of Miller Rule

In 2014, the Fourth Circuit issued an abeyance pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Toca v. Louisiana, which would clarify whether the Miller rule could be applied retroactively.  However, the Supreme Court subsequently dismissed the writ of certiorari pursuant to the parties’ stipulation.  Instead, the Fourth Circuit relied on Miller‘s companion case, Jackson v. Hobbs.  In accord with Jackson, the court recognized that “an express holding a rule is retroactive, rather than mere application of the rule, is required to establish retroactivity.”  The Fourth Circuit found that the Arkansas Supreme Court’s application of the rule did not constitute an express holding, and therefore, that retroactive application of the Miller rule was not intended.

District Court’s Decision Affirmed by Fourth Circuit

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment denying the petitioner’s challenge to his life sentence without parole, holding that the Miller rule cannot be applied retroactively in collateral review.