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United States v. Jefferson

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

March 14, 2016

United States of America, Plaintiff - Appellee
Robert James Jefferson, Defendant - Appellant

Submitted October 23, 2015.

Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - St. Paul.

For United States of America, Plaintiff - Appellee: Jeffrey S. Paulsen, Assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.

Robert James Jefferson, also known as: 'Duddy', also known as: 'Baby Taz', Defendant - Appellant, Pro se, Greenville, IL.

For Robert James Jefferson, also known as: 'Duddy', also known as: 'Baby Taz', Defendant - Appellant: Mark D. Larsen, Mark D. Larsen, Lindquist & Vennum, Minneapolis, MN.

Before LOKEN, MURPHY, and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges.


LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

Robert James Jefferson, born in October 1977, joined the 6-0-Tres gang in 1993 and soon began participating in the St. Paul gang's violent criminal activity. In 1998, after a six-week trial, a federal jury convicted Jefferson of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine; two substantive drug trafficking offenses in 1997; the firebombing murder of five young children in February 1994, when Jefferson was sixteen; and the drive-by shooting of a drug debtor and an innocent bystander in February 1995, when Jefferson was seventeen. Consistent with the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines, the district court sentenced Jefferson to life in prison; we affirmed the convictions and sentence on direct appeal. United States v. Jefferson, 215 F.3d 820 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 911, 121 S.Ct. 261, 148 L.Ed.2d 189 (2000).

">In Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 2469, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012), the Supreme Court held " that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders." Jefferson then filed a petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a), urging that he be resentenced in light of Miller. Consistent with the Supreme Court's recent decision that Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law that retroactively applies in post-conviction proceedings, Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718, 736, 193 L.Ed.2d 599 (2016), the district court[1] granted the petition, vacated the 1998 sentence, and set the case for resentencing. After a two-day hearing, the district court varied downward from the now-advisory guidelines range of life in prison and imposed a sentence of 600 months in prison.[2] United States v. Jefferson, Cr. No. 97-276, 2015 WL 501968, at *8 (D. Minn. Feb. 5, 2015). Jefferson appeals the 600-month sentence. We affirm.


Jefferson first argues that his 600-month sentence violates the Eighth Amendment because the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments is a " categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles." Jefferson acknowledges that the Supreme Court in Miller expressly declined to consider this issue. See 132 S.Ct. at 2469. But he contends that his conclusion " draws inexorably" from the Court's reasoning in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 569, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 161 L.Ed.2d 1 (2005), in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 68, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010), and in Miller. Imposing a de facto life sentence on a juvenile, he asserts, " does not meet contemporary standards of decency." We review this constitutional challenge to a sentence de novo. See United States v. Sykes, 809 F.3d 435, 439 (8th Cir. 2016).

Roper categorically prohibited imposing the death penalty on a juvenile offender. 543 U.S. at 578. Graham categorically held that, if a State imposes a life sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide, it must provide " some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term." 560 U.S. at 82. Miller categorically held that the two mandatory sentencing schemes at issue violated the " principle of proportionality" underlying the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments by " requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes." 132 S.Ct. at 2475.[3]

The Court in Miller did not hold that the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits imposing a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile offender. Rather, the Court held that the mandatory penalty schemes at issue prevented the sentencing judgeore jury from taking into account " that the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes." Id. at 2465. The Court recognized that " about 15% of all juvenile life-without-parole sentences [then being served]" were non-mandatory sentences imposed at the discretion of a judge or jury. Id. at 2471-72 n.10. Rather than include those sentences in a broader categorical ban, the Court concluded only " that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles," life without the possibility of parole. Id. at 2475.

Jefferson's 600-month sentence does not fall within Miller's categorical ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences. Jefferson was resentenced under now-advisory federal guidelines after a hearing in which the district court carefully and thoroughly applied the teaching of Roper, Graham, and Miller " that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing." Miller, 132 S.Ct. at 2464. The Supreme Court in Roper affirmed a discretionary sentence of life without parole for a juvenile homicide offender. 543 U.S. at 560. Our sister circuits have uniformly declined to apply Miller's categorical ban to discretionary life sentences. See Davis v. McCollum,798 F.3d 1317, 1321-22 (10th Cir. 2015); Croft v. Williams,773 F.3d 170, 171 (7th Cir. 2014); Evans-Garcia v. United States,744 F.3d 235, 240-41 (1st Cir. 2014); Bell v. Uribe,748 F.3d 857, 869 (9th Cir. 2013), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 1545, 191 L.Ed.2d 636 (2015). And in United States v. Barraza, we affirmed a federal life sentence for a defendant who committed crimes including homicide at the age of sixteen. 576 F.3d 798, 808 (8th Cir. 2009), cert. ...

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