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Florida Appellate Court Upholds 45 Year Sentence for Juvenile Offender

| Nov 13, 2015 | Cases of Interest, Criminal Defense, In the News

Earlier this week, the First District Court of Appeal denied a juvenile offender’s request for the court to remand his 45 year term for a non-homicide crime for resentencing, which he contended violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The case, Kelsey v. State, involved a defendant whose sentence had already been lowered once as a result of conflicts with the Eighth Amendment. Kelsey initially received two life sentences after he was convicted for Aggravated Robbery, Aggravated Burglary, and two counts of Sexual Battery. However, while his case was on appeal, the United States Supreme Court decided Graham v. Florida, which held that a life sentence for a non-homicide juvenile offender, without possibility of parole, violated the Eighth Amendment.

Kelsey was resentenced, pursuant to Graham, to two concurrent 45 year terms. During his appeal of that sentence the Florida Supreme Court decided Henry v. State, which cast doubt on the constitutionality of Kelsey’s sentence. Henry held that a juvenile offender sentenced to 90 years without possibility of release was also a violation of the Eighth Amendment, since 90 years was a “de facto” life sentence. To remedy the constitutional violation, the Henry court ordered the defendant to be resentenced based on the new juvenile sentencing laws passed by the Florida Legislature in 2014, even though the statute was not to be applied retroactively. Kelsey sought the same relief for his 45 year sentence arguing that, under the Henry rationale, he was entitled to a resentencing hearing.

The First District Court’s rationale for denying Kelsey’s request was that no other case in the First District had ever found a 45 year sentence to be a “de facto” life sentence. The issue was complicated further by the fact that the Florida Supreme Court, in another case called Thomas v. State, recently ordered a homicide juvenile offender to be resentenced under the 2014 guidelines after being re-sentenced to a 40 year term following the United States’ Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which extended Graham to include homicide cases.

The First District’s opinion yesterday explained the apparent contradiction, stating that when a homicide defendant’s original sentence violates Miller, the Florida Supreme Court appears to require the defendant to be resentenced under the 2014 guidelines, regardless of the term that the defendant received after his resentencing. Judge Winokur’s concurring opinion described the retroactive application of the 2014 guidelines for homicide offenders as an “extraordinary remedy” that arose from “unique circumstances” of “offenders whose sentences were unconstitutional but had no other sentencing alternatives available”. However, the court’s opinion found that a non-homicide defendant who is resentenced pursuant to Miller had a “range of lawful punishments available.” According to the First District’s current framework, a non-homicide defendant can only be resentenced under the new guidelines if he receives a de facto life sentence after resentencing, even though a homicide defendant can be sentenced under the new guidelines regardless of the sentence he receives after resentencing.

Even the First District did not appear sure of this classification. It concluded its opinion by stating that it was “constrained to affirm” Kelsey’s sentence due to its earlier decisions, but recognized the need for clarity on the issue. It further certified the case to be heard by the Florida Supreme Court as an issue of great public importance. It seems patently unfair that a 45 year sentence for a non-homicide offense is upheld, while a 40 year sentence for a homicide offense is deemed to violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Given the complicated and perhaps contradictory classifications for juvenile offenders seeking resentencing, it is highly likely that the Florida Supreme Court will hear the issue.