Retroactivity of Mandatory Juvenile Life Sentences

An article in The Legal Intelligencer yesterday morning examines “a Third Circuit Court of Appeals interpretation of Miller v. Alabama issued last week, deepening the divide among the circuits on the application of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in that case three years ago, declaring mandatory life sentences for juveniles as unconstitutional.

The case, In re Pendleton, etal, the Intelligencer reported, “was one in which the appeals court had been presented with applications to bring successive habeas petitions by three inmates seeking to raise claims related to the Miller decision — all three had been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, two in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey, arguing that Miller  applied retroactively. Although thoroughly exploring the issues, the Third Circuit did not rule on whether or not Miller in fact applied retroactively, but only that there was a sufficiently colorable argument to be made over the application of Miller and granted the motions to file petitions, effectively sending them to the district courts to be hashed out.”

While holding that petitioners had made a prima facie showing that Miller was  retroactive, the Intelligencer  further reported “the Third Circuit joined the Second, Fourth and Eighth circuits, all of which held that inmates would be allowed to bring their petitions raising Miller claims without ruling on whether or not the Supreme Court intended for Miller to apply retroactively…. the Eleventh and Fifth circuits have ruled it does not.”

Also in the mix at the state level is a case captionedCommonwealth v. Cunningham on the same issue, heard by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last fall. No decision has been issued on that case as yet.