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Benson v. Kelley

Supreme Court of Arkansas

November 29, 2018

TYRELL A. BENSON APPELLANT
v.
WENDY KELLEY, DIRECTOR, ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE JEFFERSON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 35CV-16-731] HONORABLE JODI RAINES DENNIS, JUDGE.

          Tyrell A. Benson, pro se appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Karen Virginia Wallace, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          RHONDA K. WOOD, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE.

         Appellant Tyrell Benson appeals the denial of his petition for writ of habeas corpus. As a juvenile, Benson committed multiple offenses resulting in multiple convictions and sentences. He alleges that one of his sentences exceeds his life expectancy without the opportunity for parole, resulting in a de facto life sentence in violation of Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). We conclude that Benson is parole eligible; therefore, we do not speculate as to whether his sentence would violate Graham if he were not parole eligible. However, because Benson's judgment-and-commitment orders incorrectly state that he is ineligible for parole pursuant to Arkansas Code Annotated section 16-93-609, we reverse the denial of Benson's habeas petition, issue the writ, and remand to the sentencing court to correct the orders.

         I. Background

         When he was seventeen years old, Benson committed a series of criminal offenses. In January 2003, a Pulaski County Circuit Court jury convicted him of three counts of aggravated robbery, which he committed in March 2002. The trial court sentenced him to three consecutive ten-year sentences (60CR-02-2345).[1] In February 2003, a Pulaski County Circuit Court jury convicted him of two counts of a terroristic act, which he committed in March 2002. The circuit court sentenced him to two, thirty-year sentences to run concurrently with one another but consecutively to the thirty years he received on the aggravated-robbery charges (60CR-02-1695).[2] Finally, in March 2003, Benson entered a negotiated plea of guilty to rape and aggravated robbery, which he committed in May 2002. He was sentenced to sixty years on each count to run concurrently with each other and with his previous sentences (60CR-02-1978). The February and March 2003 sentencing-and-commitment orders state that Benson is "not eligible for parole" pursuant to section 16-93-609, an enhancement statute.

         In November 2016, Benson filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Jefferson County Circuit Court arguing that his sentences are cruel and unusual and unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Specifically, he alleged that his sixty-year sentence comprises a de facto life sentence, which the United States Supreme Court prohibits under Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). In Graham, the Supreme Court held that the imposition of a life sentence without the benefit of parole eligibility on juveniles who commit nonhomicide offenses is unconstitutional. The circuit court denied Benson's petition, finding that his sentence does not violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments under Graham. Benson appealed.

         II. Standard of Review

         A writ of habeas corpus is proper when a judgment of conviction is invalid on its face or when a trial court lacks jurisdiction over the cause. Philyaw v. Kelley, 2015 Ark. 465, 477 S.W.3d 503. Under our statute, a petitioner who does not allege his or her actual innocence must plead either the facial invalidity of the judgment or the lack of jurisdiction by the trial court and make a showing by affidavit or other evidence of probable cause to believe that the petitioner is being illegally detained. Ark. Code Ann. § 16-112-103(a)(1) (Repl. 2016). Unless the petitioner can show that the trial court lacked jurisdiction or that the judgment is facially invalid, there is no basis for a finding that a writ of habeas corpus should issue. Williams v. Kelley, 2017 Ark. 200, at 3, 521 S.W.3d 104, 106.

         III. Analysis

         On appeal, Benson argues that his sixty-year sentence without parole is unconstitutional because it exceeds his life expectancy. Benson's argument is premised on the fact that he must serve sixty-years' imprisonment and is ineligible for release until he is seventy-seven years old. He claims his life expectancy is seventy-three years. Benson's sentencing-and-commitment orders in case numbers 60CR-02-1695 and 60CR-02-1978 provide that Benson is ineligible for parole in accordance with Act 1805 of 2001, codified as Arkansas Code Annotated section 16-93-609. The State alleges that despite the notations on his sentencing orders, section 16-93-609 does not apply to Benson and that Benson is not serving a de facto life sentence because he is eligible for parole at age fifty-five pursuant to section 5-4-501(d)(1) and (d)(1)(C).[3] We agree with the State's argument that section 16-93-609 is inapplicable to Benson. However, because Benson's sentencing-and-commitment orders provide that section 16-93-609 applies to Benson, we conclude that the orders are invalid on their face, and we reverse the denial of the petition for writ of habeas corpus.

         Section 16-93-609 is a sentencing enhancement statute. It provides:

(a) Any person who commits murder in the first degree, § 5-10-102, rape, § 5-14-103, or aggravated robbery, § 5-12-103, subsequent to March 24, 1983, and who has previously been found guilty of or pleaded guilty or nolo contendere to murder in the first degree, § 5-10-102, rape, § 5-14-103, or aggravated robbery, ...

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