GARNETT v. WETZEL et al
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY HONORABLE TIMOTHY J. SAVAGE ON 8/17/16. 8/17/16 ENTERED AND COPIES E-MAILED. (jpd)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
JOHN E. WETZEL, Secretary, Pennsylvania :
Dept. of Corrections and NANCY GIROUX, :
Superintendent of State Correctional
Institute at Muncy
August 17, 2016
Trina Garnett, like all other juveniles in Pennsylvania who were sentenced to life
without parole after having been convicted of murder, has never been afforded a
constitutionally required individualized sentencing hearing. Now, as mandated by Miller
v. Alabama, 567 U.S. __, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S.
___, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), she must be resentenced, taking into consideration the factors
peculiar to his youthful status at the time of the offense and original sentencing.
Garnett filed a habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 seeking vacation of her
sentence. She relies on Miller which held that a mandatory life sentence without parole for
a juvenile convicted of murder is unconstitutional.
Since she filed her petition, the
Supreme Court in Montgomery held that the Miller holding applied retroactively to cases
on collateral review.
We shall grant Garnett’s habeas petition and order the state court to resentence her.
The sentencing hearing must be conducted within the framework of Miller and
Montgomery. The sentencing court must adhere to the process dictated by these cases.
That means the court must consider the rationale for treating juveniles differently from
adults and then account for those differences in determining an individualized,
The Resentencing Framework and Requirements
The Miller court found “three significant gaps between juveniles and adults”: (1) the
juveniles’ “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility”; (2) their
vulnerability “to negative influence and outside pressures” which limit “control over their
own environment,” resulting in “lack of ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crimeproducing settings”; (3) their unformed character and traits that militate against a finding
of “irretrievable depravity.” Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2464 (citing and quoting Graham v. Florida,
560 U.S. 48, 68 (2010); Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 569-70 (2005)). The Miller court
relied on common sense and “developments in psychology and brain science” which
demonstrated “transient rashness, proclivity for risks, and inability to assess
consequences.” Id. at 2464-65. Based upon these factors, “children are constitutionally
different from adults for purposes of sentencing.” Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 733. Thus,
juveniles must be treated differently from adults in sentencing. Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2469.
In recognition of these differences between juveniles and adults, the sentencing
court must consider factors unique to juveniles. These include the juvenile’s chronological
age and with it his immaturity, impulsivity, failure to appreciate the risks and consequences
of his actions; his family and home environment; the extent of his participation in the
homicide; the role of familial and peer pressure; his inability to deal with the police,
prosecutor and his own attorney; and, significantly, the possibility of rehabilitation. Id. at
None of these factors were taken into account when Garnett was sentenced. Now,
they must be.
There is no question that resentencing a defendant decades after a conviction
presents a difficult, time-consuming and fact-intensive task. Yet, it is a task that must be
undertaken if we are to remain faithful to the devotion to individualized sentencing and to
take into account, as Miller mandates, how children are different from adults.
Accounting for the factors informing choices the defendant made when he
committed the offense and the forces that influenced his immature decision-making will
vary in each case. The passage of time, fading memories, long-gone witnesses and
missing records make accurately presenting a picture of the defendant at the time of his
offense difficult. But, it is not impossible. The parties and the sentencing court can call
upon appropriate experts to opine on the defendant’s mental and psychological condition,
and his level of maturity at the time of the offense. Indeed, expert testimony may be
Of all the factors, the potential for reform is the most critical. The other factors may
explain how and why the juvenile acted when he committed the offense. The rehabilitation
factor tells us how she has acted more recently and helps predict how she will act in the
future. It addresses the question of whether the defendant is beyond reform and is
Miller and Montgomery emphasize the importance of the potential for reform and
rehabilitation in sentencing juveniles.
Thus, the sentencing hearing must give the
defendant “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity
and rehabilitation.” Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2469 (quoting Graham, 130 S. Ct. at 2030).
The science has shown that juveniles have a diminished sense of culpability and a
greater potential for reform. Their immaturity is transient. Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 734.
They have the capacity for positive change and development. Id.
Post-sentencing rehabilitation takes on added significance in the resentencing
process. Unlike the other factors, it presents the most up-to-date information about the
offender’s history and characteristics.
It is highly relevant to his amenability to
It informs the assessment of whether the offender is permanently
incorrigible or irreparably corrupt, placing her into the “rarest of juvenile offender” status
deserving of life imprisonment. It is a factor that removes much of the guess work from
predicting whether the offender is capable of being rehabilitated.
Since her conviction, Garnett has been in prison where her conduct and amenability
to rehabilitation have been revealed to prison authorities. Her conduct since she has been
incarcerated is a significant factor to be considered. Ironically, the sentencing court will be
in a better position to assess Garnett’s potential for rehabilitation than a court would have
been four decades earlier at the time of her conviction.
After considering the defendant as an individual and “as a unique study in the
human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and the punishment
to ensue,” the sentencing judge must impose a sentence that is proportionate. United
States v. Pepper, 131 S. Ct. 1229, 1240 (2011). Thus, “punishment should fit the offender
and not merely the crime.” Id. (quoting Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241, 247 (1949)).
In Pennsylvania, the sentencing judge must fix both the minimum and the maximum
of the term of imprisonment after an individualized hearing taking into consideration all
relevant facts.1 Routinely fixing the maximum of each sentence at life contradicts a sense
The minimum can not exceed one-half the maximum. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9756(b)(1).
of proportionality and smacks of categorical uniformity. A sentencing practice that results
in every juvenile’s sentence with a maximum term of life, regardless of the minimum term,
does not reflect individualized sentencing. Placing the decision with the Parole Board, with
its limited resources and lack of sentencing expertise, is not a substitute for a judicially
imposed sentence. Passing off the ultimate decision to the Parole Board in every case
reflects an abdication of judicial responsibility and ignores the Miller mandate.
Montgomery made clear that a life sentence is reserved for the rarest of the
permanently incorrigible or irreparably corrupt juveniles. Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 734.
Fixing the maximum sentence at life permits the Parole Board to deny parole, effectively
working to imprison the defendant for the duration of his life. As long as the Parole Board
has the authority to refuse to grant parole, life without parole remains a possibility
regardless of the individual’s peculiar situation. If the sentencing court finds that the
defendant is not corruptible and not incorrigible, it must impose a maximum sentence less
than life to reflect that finding. It can not avoid determining whether the defendant is
irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible.
No one can doubt that there are defendants who should be released immediately
after a weighing of all the factors. There are those whose rehabilitation will be beyond
question. In those instances, the sentencing court can not discharge its responsibility by
passing the decision to the Parole Board.
Defendants, some now graying adults, should not be required to suffer delay and
another proceeding before gaining the freedom they already deserve had the sentencing
judge conducted a thorough sentencing hearing applying the principles prescribed by Miller
The Pennsylvania Dilemma
In Pennsylvania, the sentencing court is faced with a dilemma. The statute which
applied in Garnett’s case has been declared unconstitutional. The new statute does not
apply to her. Therefore, there is no statutory sentencing scheme that applies to those
juveniles who were convicted of first degree murder prior to June 25, 2012.
Only the Pennsylvania Legislature can establish the penalty for a crime. 18 Pa.C.S.
After the Supreme Court declared the sentencing scheme providing a life
without parole sentence unconstitutional, the Legislature was required to enact a penalty
statute that satisfied Miller. It did. 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102.1(a). However, the new statute
applies only to individuals convicted after June 24, 2012. The Legislature specifically noted
that the new statute did not apply retroactively.
Because there is no statute establishing the penalty for those juveniles who were
convicted of first degree murder prior to the passage of the new penalty statute, the Parole
Board cannot act. It is powerless to parole a person serving a life sentence. 61 Pa. Stat.
§ 331.21 (1941).2 Additionally, the Parole Board can only grant parole after the minimum
term of imprisonment has expired. Because there is no statutory maximum sentence, there
is no minimum term in the case of a juvenile who had been convicted of first or second
degree murder in Pennsylvania before June 25, 2012. Therefore, parole is not an option
and the Parole Board can play no role in executing the new sentence.
If parole is unavailable, the resentencing court’s only option may be a flat sentence
imposed after conducting the constitutionally mandated sentencing hearing. There is no
statutory authority for imposing a minimum sentence for a person convicted of first degree
This is the statute in effect at the time of Garnett’s conviction. The current statute is 61
Pa.C.S. § 6137(a)(1), which is no different.
murder. Commonwealth v. Manning, 435 A.2d 1207, 1212 n.5 (Pa. 1981); Castle v. Pa.
Bd. of Probation and Parole, 554 A.2d 625, 628 (Pa. Commw. 1989).3
It is not our role to interpret Pennsylvania law in these circumstances. We do not
attempt to usurp the authority of the state court to impose the sentence it deems
appropriate so long as it adheres to the constitutionally mandated requirements as set forth
in Miller and Montgomery.
Of course, the sentencing court may fashion a sentence that includes a period of less
restrictive custody to start after release from prison, such as at a reentry placement or half-way
house. These alternatives may provide the necessary time and assistance to reintegrate
offenders who have been out of the mainstream for decades.
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