Resentencing instructions may cause confusion for trial courts

By Kelly Caplan
BridgeTower Media Newswires
DETROIT — A man serving a mandatory life sentence for an armed robbery and kidnapping conviction will get another day in court to determine if a sentencing error was made.

In People v. Wines, a Michigan Supreme Court majority reversed part of a Court of Appeals judgment addressing Gregory Wines’ sentencing arguments, and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

The Kent County Circuit Court “shall consider the defendant’s arguments ... and may exercise its discretion to resentence him for those convictions, in particular ‘if it finds that the sentence[s] [were] based on a legal misconception that the defendant was required to serve a mandatory sentence of life without parole on the greater offense.”

While Justice Stephen J. Markman concurred with the majority’s holding to reverse that part of the Court of Appeals judgment, he wrote a lengthy dissent — joined by Justice Brian K. Zahra — on the majority’s decision to deny the prosecutor’s application for leave to appeal.

“The prosecutor argues that the Court of Appeals erred by holding that the trial court must consider the ‘distinctive attributes of youth, such as those discussed in [Miller v. Alabama, 567 US 460 (2012)],’ even where the prosecutor has not sought a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” he wrote. “Because I am inclined to agree with the prosecutor, and because there are significant consequences for our juvenile justice system, I would grant leave to appeal.”

Markman pointed out that, in a “sharply divided 5-4 decision,” the United States Supreme Court in Miller said children are “constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing” and that “mandatory life without parole” for those who are under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

As such, trial courts must weigh several Miller factors before handing down such a sentence. In response, the Michigan Legislature adopted MCL 769.25, which states, in part that if a prosecuting attorney files a motion to sentence a defendant to life without parole, the trial court shall consider the factors listed in Miller.

“However, if the prosecutor does not file such a motion — as here — there is no obligation imposed by either the United States Supreme Court or our Legislature to consider such factors,” he wrote. “In other words, extending Miller into this new realm simply lacks warrant in either Miller or in the statute enacted in furtherance of Miller. Moreover, such an extension lacks any warrant in any previous decision of this Court.”

In the instant case, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that “a failure to consider the distinctive attributes of youth, such as those discussed in Miller, when sentencing a minor to a term of years pursuant to MCL 769.25a so undermines a sentencing judge’s exercise of his or her discretion as to constitute reversible error.”

That language — and the high court majority’s holding — left the soon-to-be retired justice puzzled.

“[I]t is not at all clear what exactly the Court of Appeals, and now this Court, are requiring trial courts to do when sentencing a minor convicted of first-degree murder when the sentence of imprisonment without parole is not at issue,” he said. “Is ‘tak[ing] into account the attributes of youth’ distinguishable in some way from considering the Miller factors and, if so, what is that distinction?

He then offered some advice.

“Before Miller is extended to apply to term-of-years sentences, in whatever manner it is now apparently being extended, this Court should clarify exactly what are the new obligations being imposed upon the juvenile sentencing process and exactly why we are imposing such new obligations. Some justification would seem to be in order for why, without either public discussion or legislative  charge, this Court would now extend the transformation of our process for sentencing the most serious juvenile offenders — a process initiated in a 5-4 decision of the United States Supreme Court — far beyond the boundaries even of that decision.”

Finally, Markman pointed out that “the Court of Appeals did more than simply say that the trial  court may consider a defendant’s age; rather, it held that the trial court ‘is required to take into account the attributes of youth, such as those described in Miller’ and that a failure to do so ‘constitute[s] reversible error.’”


Subscribe to the Legal News!

Full access to public notices, articles, columns, archives, statistics, calendar and more

Day Pass Only $4.95!

One-County $80/year

Three-County & Full Pass also available