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Wright v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

September 5, 2018

Steve L. Wright, Jr. Petitioner - Appellant
v.
United States of America Respondent - Appellee

          Submitted: April 11, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Kansas City

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, WOLLMAN and LOKEN, Circuit Judges.

          LOKEN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         In 2006, a jury convicted Steve L. Wright, Jr., of fourteen federal offenses. A number of the crimes took place when Wright was a juvenile; others occurred after he reached age eighteen. Count 1, the offense of conspiring to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base and other controlled substances, encompassed conduct undertaken both before and after Wright's eighteenth birthday. In February 2007, the district court[1] sentenced Wright to life in prison plus 110 years. This appeal requires us to apply recent Supreme Court cases addressing the constitutionality of life sentences for juveniles -- Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016) -- to Wright's claims for successive post-conviction relief from his sentence.

         At sentencing, the district court imposed the statutory mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment for Count 7, the offense of aiding and abetting the murder of a witness. See 18 U.S.C. § 1512(a)(1)(C), (2), (3)(A). For sentencing purposes the district court grouped all the drug offenses (Counts 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 12, 13, and 14) and imposed the advisory guidelines sentence of life imprisonment. Count 1 was the only conviction in this group for which a life sentence was statutorily authorized. For the firearm offenses, as mandated by statute, the court imposed a consecutive sentence of ten years for Wright's first conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (Count 4), and additional consecutive twenty-five-year sentences for each subsequent § 924(c) conviction (Counts 6, 9, 11, and 15). Wright committed the offenses in Counts 4, 6, and 9 before his eighteenth birthday.

         We affirmed Wright's sentence on direct appeal. United States v. Wright, 536 F.3d 819 (8th Cir. 2008), cert. denied, 556 U.S. 1144 (2009). In May 2010, the district court denied his 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to vacate or correct the sentence; Wright appealed and we denied a certificate of appealability. In June 2013, Wright filed a successive § 2255 motion based on Graham, Miller, and Montgomery. We granted authorization to file the motion. Wright v. United States, No. 13-1638 (8th Cir. Feb. 5, 2014); see §§ 2244(b)(3), 2255(h).

         In Graham, the Supreme Court held that a juvenile who has not committed homicide may not be sentenced to life without parole; he must instead have "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." 560 U.S. at 74-75.[2] In Miller, the Court held that a juvenile who has committed homicide may be sentenced to life without parole but the sentence must be based on individualized factors, including "a juvenile's 'lessened culpability' and greater 'capacity for change.'" 567 U.S. at 465 (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 68, 74). In Montgomery, the Court held that Miller's holding, like Graham's, is retroactive on collateral review because it established a substantive rule. 136 S.Ct. at 732-34.

         In the district court, the government conceded that Wright's mandatory life sentence for Count 7 violated the Eighth Amendment as construed in Miller because the underlying murder occurred when Wright was a juvenile. The district court[3]vacated the life sentence, imposed a sentence of fifteen years on Count 7, and denied all other relief. Wright appeals, arguing (i) he should be resentenced on Counts 1, 4, 6, and 9 because some or all of the criminal activity giving rise to those convictions occurred before his eighteenth birthday; and (ii) the district court erred in denying a comprehensive resentencing hearing because his entire sentence was tainted by Eighth Amendment violations. Reviewing the constitutionality of his sentencing de novo, we affirm. United States v. Jefferson, 816 F.3d 1016, 1018 (8th Cir. 2016) (standard of review).

         I.

         A.

         Wright first argues he is entitled to resentencing on Count 1 under Graham and Miller because many conspirator acts in furtherance of the conspiracy occurred before his eighteenth birthday. Even if the conspiracy continued past his eighteenth birthday and permitted him to be tried as an adult, Wright argues, "a sentencing court should be permitted to consider whether a life sentence is appropriate for his role in the conspiracy based upon the recent Supreme Court jurisprudence recognizing that juveniles should be treated differently." But Miller and Graham held only "that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders." Miller, 567 U.S. at 479 (emphasis added). Wright acknowledges that the life sentence imposed for Count 1 was not mandated by statute. However, he argues, sentencing enhancements in the guidelines then in effect "required [the district court] to impose a mandatory life sentence . . . without being allowed to consider Mr. Wright's age at the time the offense began and the other mitigating qualities of youth."

         This contention is simply wrong. Wright was sentenced in 2007, when the Sentencing Guidelines were advisory. The district court did not vary downward from the advisory guidelines range of life plus 110 years in prison, but it was authorized to do so.[4]Montgomery held that the decision in Miller is retroactive because mandatory life without parole is a substantive rule, unlike a non-retroactive procedural rule that "regulates only the manner of determining the defendant's culpability." 136 S.Ct. at 733 (emphasis omitted). Wright is arguing the district court should have taken his youth into account under Miller in sentencing him under Count 1. This appears to be an argument for a non-retroactive procedural rule regulating the manner of determining culpability. The issue is not that simple, however, because in banning mandatory life without parole for juveniles who commit homicide offenses, Miller prescribed a hearing procedure needed to separate those who may be sentenced to life without parole -- "the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility" -- and the Court in Montgomery described this as "a procedural requirement necessary to implement [Miller's retroactive] substantive guarantee." 136 S.Ct. at 734. But we conclude Wright's argument does not fall within this substantive guarantee. Wright was not sentenced on Count 1 as a juvenile offender. He was sentenced for conspiratorial conduct that extended well into his adult years under an advisory ...


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