In Malvo v. State, 29/21 (Md. August 26, 2022), the Maryland Court of Appeals granted a writ of certiorari to consider the petitioner’s motion to correct an illegal sentence after being sentenced to six terms of life without parole for crimes he committed as a juvenile.
Under Maryland Rule 4-345(a), a court may correct an illegal sentence at any time. A sentence that constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment or the Maryland Declaration of Rights is an illegal sentence.
The cases of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479 (2012) (“Miller”) and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016) (“Montgomery”) established that the Eighth Amendment requires a hearing where “youth and its characteristics” are considered as sentencing factors so that life without parole is not imposed in cases where a crime was the result of the juvenile offender’s transient immaturity. However, in Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S. Ct. 1307, 1313 (2021) (“Jones”), the United States Supreme Court clarified that a discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient to meet this requirement. No explicit finding of incorrigibility (an inability to be reformed) is required.
Nonetheless, Jones did not disturb Montgomery’s holding that Miller applies retroactively. The Court explained that because Miller’s substantive holding remained good law, it followed that an offender deemed corrigible, or capable of reform, cannot constitutionally be sentenced to life without parole.
During sentencing, the judge stated that the petitioner had changed in the four years since he committed the crimes. The judge appeared to recognize that the petitioner’s crimes were committed by a vulnerable and impressionable youth deeply under the sway of an adult he viewed as a father figure. However, the sentencing judge also stated that the petitioner was a convicted murderer. The Court found that these statements led to conflicting inferences as to whether the sentencing judge considered the petitioner to be capable of reform. The Court noted that because the sentencing occurred before Miller and Montgomery, it was likely that the sentencing judge did not consider the issue of incorrigibility.
The State argued that because Maryland has a discretionary sentencing system, the petitioner’s resentencing was foreclosed by Jones. The Court rejected this argument and explained that in Jones, the sentencing court acknowledged that it had the discretion to impose a different sentence in light of Miller and explicitly chose not to do so. However, in this case, the petitioner was sentenced before Miller and Montgomery. Therefore, the sentencing judge could not have been aware of the Eighth Amendment constraints those decisions announced.
The State also argued that the Maryland Juvenile Restoration Act (“JUVRA”) rendered resentencing unnecessary. Under JUVRA, a court may reduce the duration of a juvenile offender’s sentence if the court finds that the individual is not a danger to the public and the interests of justice will be better served by a reduced sentence. The Court found that JUVRA might not be an adequate substitute for the imposition of legal sentences. The Court noted there were many variables at play, including the manner in which a defendant is resentenced and how JUVRA is construed to apply to the new sentence.
The Court held that the circuit court must resentence the petitioner.