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Harris v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

May 24, 2018



          Benca & Benca, by: Jessica Duncan Johnston; and Jeff Rosenzweig, for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Vada Berger, Ass't Att'y Gen., and Christian Harris, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee

          JOHN DAN KEMP, Chief Justice

         Appellant Derrick Lynell Harris appeals from the Drew County Circuit Court's order denying him a resentencing hearing and imposing a sentence of life with parole eligibility pursuant to the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act of 2017 (FSMA).[1] We reverse and remand.

         In 1996, Harris was found guilty by a Drew County jury of capital murder. The capital-murder statute in effect at the time of Harris's offense provided for a sentence of either death or life imprisonment without parole. See Ark. Code Ann. § 5-10-101(c) (Supp. 1995).[2] Because Harris was fifteen years old[3] when he committed the crime, he was ineligible for the death penalty. See Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815, 838 (1988) (plurality opinion) (holding that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution prohibit the execution of a person who was under sixteen years of age at the time of his or her offense). Thus, he was sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. See Harris v. State, 331 Ark. 353, 961 S.W.2d 737 (1998) (affirming conviction and sentence).

         In 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a sentencing scheme that requires life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479 (2012). Harris petitioned for writ of habeas corpus under Miller, and the Jefferson County Circuit Court issued the writ in 2016. The circuit court vacated Harris's mandatory sentence of life without parole and remanded for resentencing. On remand, and pursuant to the FSMA, the Drew County Circuit Court summarily resentenced Harris to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after thirty years.

         Harris contends that the FSMA does not apply to him, and therefore, he is entitled to resentencing pursuant to this court's decisions in Jackson v. Norris, 2013 Ark. 175, 426 S.W.3d 906, and Kelley v. Gordon, 2015 Ark. 277, 465 S.W.3d 842. Further, he raises numerous constitutional challenges to the FSMA. We begin with a discussion of pertinent case law and legislative enactments.

         I. Juvenile Sentencing

         A. Case Law

         On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Miller v. Alabama and a companion case from Arkansas, Jackson v. Hobbs. Each case involved a fourteen-year-old offender convicted of murder and sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole. Relying on its line of precedent holding that certain punishments are disproportionate when applied to juveniles, [4] the Court held that mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishments." Miller, 567 U.S. at 465. The Court explained that

[m]andatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features-among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him-and from which he cannot usually extricate himself-no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. Indeed, it ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth-for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys. And finally, this mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.

Id. at 477-78 (internal citations omitted). Accordingly, the Court held that defendants who committed homicide crimes as juveniles and faced a sentence of life without parole were entitled to a sentencing hearing that would permit the judge or jury to consider the individual characteristics of the defendant and the individual circumstances of the crime as mitigating factors for a lesser sentence. Id. at 489. Because the mandatory life-without-parole sentencing schemes in Alabama and Arkansas violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Court reversed the judgments of this court and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and remanded the cases for further proceedings. Id.

         On remand in Jackson v. Norris, [5] we rejected the State's argument that the Eighth Amendment violation could be cured by severing the capital-murder statute, Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-10-101(c) (Repl. 1997), to provide for a sentence of life with parole. 2013 Ark. 175, 426 S.W.3d 906. We explained that the imposition of that sentence would not allow for consideration of Miller evidence. Id., 426 S.W.3d 906. Instead, we severed language from the statute "so that, for juveniles convicted of capital murder, all that remain[ed] [was] that capital murder is a Class Y felony." Id., at 7-8, 426 S.W.3d at 910. We remanded the case for a sentencing hearing at which Jackson could present Miller evidence for consideration and instructed that Jackson's sentence must fall within the discretionary sentencing range for a Class Y felony, which is ten to forty years or life. Id. at 9, 426 S.W.3d at 911 (citing Ark. Code Ann. § 5-4-401(a)(1) (Repl. 1997)); see also Whiteside v. State, 2013 Ark. 176, 426 S.W.3d 917 (reversing juvenile offender's capital-murder sentence and remanding to the circuit court for resentencing within the discretionary statutory-sentencing range for a Class Y felony and directing that a sentencing hearing be held for presentation and consideration of Miller evidence).

         After Jackson obtained relief, other "Miller defendants" sought resentencing. The State took the position that Miller did not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review. We disagreed, and in Kelley v. Gordon, 2015 Ark. 277, 465 S.W.3d 842, cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 1378 (2016), we held that, as a matter of "fundamental fairness and evenhanded justice, " Miller applied to all juvenile offenders convicted of capital murder. Id. at 7, 465 S.W.3d at 846. In doing so, we stated that Gordon was entitled to the same relief from his unconstitutional sentence as Jackson received-namely, a sentencing proceeding at which he will have the opportunity to present Miller evidence. Id., 465 S.W.3d at 846. Consequently, we affirmed the circuit court's order vacating Gordon's life-without-parole sentence and reinvesting the sentencing court with jurisdiction to hold a new sentencing hearing under Miller. Id., 465 S.W.3d at 846.

          After this court decided Gordon, the Supreme Court resolved a split of authority and held that Miller's prohibition on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders is retroactive to cases on collateral review. Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). The Court noted that giving Miller retroactive effect "does not require States to relitigate sentences . . . in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole." Id. at 736. Rather, the Court indicated that states could "remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them." Id.

         B. Acts of the Arkansas General Assembly

         Since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Miller, the Arkansas General Assembly has twice revised the punishment authorized for juveniles convicted of capital murder. In 2013, the legislature passed Act 1490, which provided for two alternative sentences for a juvenile convicted of that offense: life imprisonment without parole or life with the possibility of parole after serving a minimum of twenty-eight years' imprisonment. See Act of Apr. 22, 2013, No. 1490, §§ 2-3, 2013 Ark. Acts 6587, 6588-89. Act 1490 did not apply retroactively. Id. § 1, 2013 Ark. Acts at 6588.[6]

          Following the Supreme Court's Montgomery decision, the legislature passed the FSMA to "eliminate life without parole as a sentencing option for minors and to create more age-appropriate sentencing standards in compliance with the United States Constitution for minors who commit serious crimes." See Act of Mar. 20, 2017, No. 539, § 2(c), 2017 Ark. Acts 2615, 2617. The FSMA authorizes only one punishment for juvenile offenders convicted of capital murder: life with the possibility of parole after serving a minimum of thirty years' imprisonment. See FSMA § 3 (codified at Ark. Code Ann. § 5-4-104(b) (Supp. 2017)), and § 6 (codified at Ark. Code Ann. § 5-10-101(c) (Supp. 2017)). In addition, the parole-eligibility provision of the FSMA states that it "applies retroactively to a minor whose [first-degree murder or capital-murder] offense was committed before he or she was eighteen (18) years of age, including minors serving sentences of life, regardless of the original sentences that were imposed." FSMA § 13 (codified at Ark. Code Ann. § 16-93-621(a)(2)(B) (Supp. 2017)). The Act provides that all juvenile offenders sentenced to imprisonment are entitled to a parole-eligibility hearing at which the parole board shall take into consideration, among other things, Miller evidence and evidence of rehabilitation. Id. (codified at Ark. Code Ann. § 16-93-621(b) (Supp. 2017)). The emergency clause of the FSMA states that "more than one hundred persons in Arkansas are entitled to relief" under the Miller and Montgomery decisions and that the Act is "immediately necessary in order to make those persons eligible for parole." FSMA § 14.

         II. Proceedings in Harris's Case

          Having summarized the relevant juvenile-sentencing law, we turn to the proceedings in Harris's case. As previously noted, following the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, the Jefferson County Circuit Court vacated Harris's life-without-parole sentence and remanded the case to the Drew County Circuit Court for resentencing. The resentencing hearing was set for May 2017. On March 22, 2017, two days after the FSMA was passed, the State filed a "Motion to Discontinue Resentencing." The State argued that the FSMA "retroactively established" parole eligibility for Harris and other similarly situated minors sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for capital murder. The State further argued that, because Harris's parole eligibility would be calculated by the FSMA, the issue of resentencing was moot. Finally, the State contended that the prior order vacating Harris's original sentence should be withdrawn.

         Harris filed a response to the State's motion and argued that he was entitled to a resentencing hearing under this court's precedent in Jackson and Gordon because he was similarly situated to the defendants in those cases. He contended that the retroactive parole-eligibility provision of the FSMA was inapplicable to him because his life sentence had been vacated and he currently had no sentence of imprisonment to which parole eligibility could attach. Harris further contended that the substantive penalty provision of the FSMA for ...

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