June 27, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Miller v. Alabama Only Affected Mandatory Life Sentences for Juvenile Offenders

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Davis v. McCollum on Tuesday, August 25, 2015.

When he was 16, Johnny Davis was involved in a botched convenience store robbery that resulted in the murder of the store clerk. In 1992, under the Oklahoma sentencing scheme in effect at the time, he was sentenced to a discretionary sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Davis appealed, and the OCCA affirmed his sentence in 1995 on direct appeal. He did not appeal the OCCA’s determination and his sentence became final. In June 2013, Davis filed a pro se application for postconviction relief in state court, which claimed his age at the time of the offense precluded the sentence of life without parole. Two weeks later, with the assistance of counsel, he filed a second application, asserting the same claims. The state court denied his applications and the OCCA affirmed those denials.

In May 2014, Davis filed a pro se federal habeas petition, asserting that (1) his life without parole sentence violated the Constitution because of the new standard expressed by the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012); (2) his counsel was ineffective at trial and on appeal; and (3) as a juvenile offender, his sentence was unconstitutional. The district court denied him a COA, finding his second and third claims were time-barred and the first issue lacked merit because Miller was inapposite. Davis appealed.

The Tenth Circuit, using AEDPA deference, agreed with the district court that the second and third claims were time-barred. Because his conviction became final before the enactment of AEDPA, his deadline to file was in April 1997. The Tenth Circuit next addressed whether Miller created a new constitutional rule for all cases in which juvenile offenders were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The Tenth Circuit noted that Miller only created a new rule for cases in which a juvenile offender was sentenced under a mandatory sentencing scheme; because the Oklahoma court had discretion to impose life with the possibility of parole, Miller was inapplicable to Davis’s case.

The district court’s denial of a COA to Davis was affirmed.

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