COA: Traditional sentencing factors should not apply when sentencing juvenile offender facing life without parole

Trial courts sentencing juvenile offenders facing life without parole must start the sentencing with the premise that only the rarest of juvenile offenders should be sentenced to life without parole, said the Michigan Court of Appeals in People v Garay, No. 329091. The Court held that this means trial courts err when they strictly apply the traditional sentencing factors instead of the factors in Miller v Alabama, 567 US 460 (2012). The Court of Appeals in Garay also found that the trial court (1) did not err in admitting into evidence the testimony of two unavailable witnesses and 2) did not abuse its discretion in denying a new trial based on a finding of no extraneous jury influence.

The trial court sentenced the juvenile defendant to life without parole, and the Court of Appeals reversed. Recalling Miller v Alabama, 567 US 460 (2012), the Court of Appeals noted that “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life without parole for juvenile offenders,” as it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in most juvenile cases. The Court interpreted Miller’s holding to mean that it is improper for trial courts to consider the traditional goals of sentencing, such as rehabilitation, punishment, deterrence, etc. when determining whether a juvenile should be sentenced to life without parole. Quoting Miller, the Court of Appeals stated that “the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the[se] penological justifications . . . for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders.” The Court remanded the case for resentencing, reminding the trial court that “more likely than not, a life-without-parole sentence is a disproportionate sentence for defendant.”

Second, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s admission of two witnesses’ prior testimony under the Michigan Rules of Evidence’s exceptions to the hearsay rule for unavailable witnesses. The father of the two witnesses—both minors, whose testimony at a preliminary examination put the defendant at the scene of the crime—refused to allow them to testify at the trial after they received threats on Facebook. The trial court held, and the Court of Appeals agreed, that this made the two unavailable witnesses under MRE 804(a). Thus, the trial court could admit their testimony from a prior hearing under MRE 804(b)(1) if the defendant had an opportunity and similar motive to develop their testimony at that time. Here, the Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant had a similar motive in questioning the witnesses at the preliminary examination as he would at trial and, in fact, did examine the witnesses. The Court found no error.

Lastly, a juror in the case came forward after the verdict claiming that the jury used cell phones during deliberations and that one of the jurors made statements vouching for a testifying officer. This, the defendant alleged, constituted influences external to the trial, which warranted a new trial unless the prosecution proved harmless error. However, the defendant did not demonstrate the purpose for which the jurors used their phones, and so failed to establish an extraneous influence on the jury. As for the juror’s statements regarding the testifying officer, the Court of Appeals determined the statements constituted internal matters, as they were based on the juror’s personal experiences with the officer that the juror brought to the jury room, rather than an outside influence. This mean that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying a new trial.