Wake Forest Law Review

By John Van Swearingen

On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case LeBlanc v. Mathena. This matter was a habeas corpus petition brought by a juvenile offender sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide offense. The District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia had previously concluded that Virginia’s Geriatric Release program, which provides offenders sentenced to life without parole the opportunity to petition for conditional release after the age of sixty, violated the minimum standards of the incorporated Eighth Amendment as held in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). In Graham, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentencing of juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses to life without parole. Juvenile life sentences for non-homicide offenses must provide a meaningful and realistic opportunity to obtain release based on “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Here, the circuit court affirmed the district court’s ruling, holding that Geriatric Release does not meet the requirements of Graham.

Facts and Procedural History

On January 1, 1995, Virginia enacted Va. Code Ann. § 53.1-165.1 (2015), abolishing parole for felonies convicted after that date. On July 6, 1999, the Petitioner committed the crimes of rape and abduction, and on July 15, 2002, he was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences.

After the Supreme Court decided Graham in 2010, the Petitioner filed a motion in Virginia state court to vacate his sentence of life without parole. In 2011, the state trial court denied Petitioner’s motion based on Angel v. Commonwealth, a contemporaneous Virginia Supreme Court decision holding that Virginia’s Geriatric Release program satisfied the requirements of Graham.

In June of 2012, the Petitioner filed a writ of habeas corpus in the District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court granted the habeas petition, holding that the Geriatric Release program did not meet the standards established in Graham. The Respondents in this case, the state, timely filed this appeal.

Virginia’s Geriatric Release Program

Virginia’s Geriatric Release program is a two-stage process by which convicted offenders with life sentences can apply for conditional release. Unlike Virginia’s abolished parole doctrine, the Geriatric Release program is not automatic. Offenders must initiate the process with a petition to the Parole Board – and again, they may only do so after their sixtieth birthday.

The first stage of the Geriatric Release process requires the offender’s petition demonstrate a “compelling” reason for the release of the offender. The term “compelling” is not defined in the relevant statute or administrative regulations. The Parole Board is able to deny the petition for Geriatric Release for any reason at this point.

Should the Parole Board permit the petition to go to the second stage, the offender will be provided the opportunity to make oral and written statements to the Parole Board to advocate for his or her release. If at least four out of five members of the Board agree, the offender’s petition for Geriatric Release will be granted.

Again, the process is distinguishable from the old parole system. Geriatric Release cannot be initiated until the offender turns sixty. Virginia’s parole process typically initiated after offenders had served about fifteen years. The Petitioner would likely have been eligible for parole, under the old system, after around twenty years. Under the Geriatric Release program, that length of time is approximately doubled. Further, only three out of five members of the Parole Board had to agree to grant parole. The Geriatric Release program requires one more member of the board for approval.

Standard of Review for Habeas Corpus Petitions

When a habeas petition is filed, the standard of review turns on whether the petition involves a question of law or fact. This case presents a question of law, meaning the standard of review is stated at 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2) (2012). If the court’s decision was an “unreasonable determination” of how the law applies to the facts in this case, then the court’s decision was improper. If the decision was reasonable, it stands.

Habeas petitions in federal district courts must review the case at hand in addition to the most recent state case addressing the issue. In this case, the most recent state case was the Angel decision, which held that the Geriatric Release program met the requirements of Graham. Since the state decision is contrary to the district court’s decision, either Angel or the district court’s decision will be determined unreasonable, and one holding will be affirmed.

The Standard Established in Graham

The holding in Graham was based on the Supreme Court’s conclusion that juveniles are less culpable for crimes than adults. Juvenile brains, the Court noted, are still developing. Because of this, the Court stated, juvenile offenders are less likely to be “irretrievably depraved” than adults. With that in mind, the Court examined the prospect of life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses in the context of the Eighth Amendment.

The Court noted that life without parole is only second to the death penalty in its harshness and ability to deprive convicted persons of hope. Life without parole is, therefore, an ultimate judgment of the irrevocable nature of an offender’s character. Given those points, the Court held that life sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses must meet three requirements.

First, the sentence must provide an opportunity to obtain release based on “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Second, this opportunity must be meaningful and realistic. Third, the state’s parole and release programs at large must account for the lesser culpability of juveniles.

The Geriatric Release Program Does Not Satisfy the Graham Requirements

The Fourth Circuit held that the Virginia Geriatric Release program does not meet any of the three requirements set out in the Graham decision, thus overturning Angel and affirming the district court’s holding.

First, the Geriatric Release program does not require the Parole Board to consider any factors relevant to the juvenile’s maturity or rehabilitation. Additionally, because of the two-stage review process, a petition can be denied at the first stage – before the presentation of oral and written arguments. Also, over 95% of the denials of Geriatric Release petitions were based on the nature of the underlying crimes, which, again, precludes consideration of maturity and rehabilitation. Therefore, the program does not meet the first requirement of Graham.

Second, the circuit court held the extended duration of time compared to parole, coupled with the lack of consideration for juvenile-specific factors, rendered the opportunity provided under the Geriatric Release program neither meaningful nor realistic for juvenile offenders facing life sentences. Therefore, the program does not meet the second requirement of Graham.

Finally, the Geriatric Release program fundamentally contravenes the concerns underlying the Court’s third requirement in Graham. Unlike the abolished parole program, which counted time served regardless of age, the Geriatric Release program requires juveniles serving life sentences to spend a longer percentage of their life incarcerated than an adult serving the same sentence. Essentially, the program ensures that juveniles, though deemed to be less culpable by the Supreme Court, will bear a harsher punishment than adults.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order remanding the Petitioner’s case for resentencing. The Virginia Geriatric Release program permits the denial of offender’s petitions without requiring consideration of demonstrated maturity or rehabilitation. The program, in execution, results in more comparably harsh sentences for juvenile offenders than adult offenders. Therefore, the Geriatric Release program does not meet the requirements of the incorporated Eighth Amendment as enumerated in Graham.

By Ali Fenno

On October 25, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case of Dingle v. Stevenson. In Dingle, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the Supreme Court’s holding in Roper v. Simmons, which invalidated the use of capital punishment against juvenile offenders, should apply retroactively to undo a guilty plea made by Ronald Donald Dingle (“Dingle”). After examining the scope of the holding in Roper and the nature of plea bargains, the Fourth Circuit held that Roper cannot apply retroactively to undo a guilty plea and affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Dingle’s petition.

Lower Courts Repeatedly Dismiss Dingle’s Petitions

In 1993 the state of South Carolina (the “State”) charged Dingle with murder, assault and battery with intent to kill, first degree burglary, kidnapping, pointing a firearm, two counts of possession of a weapon during a violent crime, and two counts of possession of a sawed-off shotgun. Because the State intended to pursue the death penalty, Dingle plead guilty in exchange for life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.

When it was later discovered that the consecutive nature of Dingle’s sentences precluded parole, an integral part of the plea bargain, Dingle filed an application for post-conviction relief (“PCR”). The PCR court vacated his sentences and remanded for sentencing consistent with the intent of the plea agreement or for a new trial.

Several years later, a hearing still had not been held, so Dingle filed a motion for a speedy trial. The hearing was then held on July 28, 2005, and Dingle contended that his guilty plea should be withdrawn. He argued that the benefit of his plea bargain, avoiding the death penalty, was removed by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Roper, which held that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment for the death penalty to be used against juvenile offenders. The Court of General Sessions disagreed, rejecting Dingle’s request for a new trial and holding that pleas should be evaluated based on the law that existed in 1995. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed this decision, finding that Roper did not remove the benefit of the plea bargain.

Dingle again filed an application for PCR in 2009, arguing that Roper retroactively applied to his case and, as such, his guilty plea was involuntary because it was made to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. However, the PCR court found that Dingle’s claim was barred by res judicata. Dingle’s subsequent appeal and third petition were unsuccessful.

Dingle also filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2554 in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. He raised four claims of error, but the district court dismissed the claims without prejudice.

On September 13, 2013, Dingle filed the instant § 2554 petition. The petition contested Dingle’s conviction on six grounds, but the district court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation to deny the petition in its entirety.

Issues on Appeal

The Fourth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability to determine the single issue of whether Roper may be applied retroactively to invalidate Dingle’s guilty plea. Dingle argued that the holding in Roper invalidated his guilty plea because (1) it was a substantive rule so applied retroactively to his case, and (2) if it would be improper for the state to seek the death penalty against him now, then it was also improper in 1995. Thus, his plea was invalid because it was attempt to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. However, the Fourth Circuit disagreed, concluding that (1) plea bargains are outside the scope of the Roper holding, and (2) the nature of plea bargains support upholding their validity.

Plea Bargains Are Outside the Scope of Roper

The Fourth Circuit first concluded that the holding in Roper was never intended to apply to plea bargains. Although the court conceded that Roper was indeed a substantive rule that could be applied retroactively, it found that the scope of the rule was limited to the actual sentence delivered in a case. Because Dingle did not actually receive the death penalty, attempting to apply the holding in Roper to his own case was “compar[ing] apples and oranges.” The court further noted that the Supreme Court had never before allowed “a substantive rule to stretch beyond the proscribed sentence to reopen guilty pleas with a different sentence.”

Future Legal Developments Cannot Invalidate Plea Bargains

The Fourth Circuit next concluded that the holding in Roper could not invalidate Dingle’s guilty plea because plea bargains are “a bet on the future,” whereby defendants accept both the benefits of a lighter sentence and the risks of losing out on future favorable legal developments. A defendant’s remorse at missing out on those favorable legal developments is not enough to rescind an entire bargain.

The court found support for this contention in Brady v. United States, where the Supreme Court held that a defendant who entered into a plea agreement to avoid capital punishment could not later withdraw his plea agreement when subsequent legal developments made him ineligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court suggested that defendants who are offered plea bargains must weigh the benefits and risks of such bargains, and the fact that they did not anticipate certain legal developments could not “impugn the truth or reliability of [their] plea.” Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit concluded that when Dingle entered his guilty plea, he accepted the trade-off between present benefits and future risks that is “emblematic” of plea bargains, and his inability to anticipate the favorable outcome in Roper could not invalidate his plea.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit concluded that (1) Roper, even applied retroactively, could not invalidate Dingle’s plea, and (2) precedent and policy argued against setting aside Dingle’s plea bargain. Accordingly, it affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Dingle’s petition and held that Roper could not be applied retroactively to invalidate Dingle’s guilty plea.