491 U.S. 376 (1989), 88-420, Jones v. Thomas

Docket Nº:No. 88-420
Citation:491 U.S. 376, 109 S.Ct. 2522, 105 L.Ed.2d 322, 57 U.S.L.W. 4762
Party Name:Jones v. Thomas
Case Date:June 19, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 376

491 U.S. 376 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 2522, 105 L.Ed.2d 322, 57 U.S.L.W. 4762

Jones

v.

Thomas

No. 88-420

United States Supreme Court

June 19, 1989

Argued April 26, 1989

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent Thomas was convicted of both attempted robbery and first-degree [109 S.Ct. 2523] felony murder arising out of the same incident, and was sentenced to consecutive terms of 15 years for the attempted robbery and life imprisonment for the felony murder, with the 15-year sentence to run first. This conviction was affirmed on appeal. While Thomas' motion for postconviction relief was pending in Missouri trial court, the Governor commuted his 15-year sentence to time served. After the Missouri Supreme Court, in unrelated cases, held that the state legislature had not intended to allow separate punishments for both felony murder and the underlying felony, the trial court vacated the attempted robbery conviction and the corresponding sentence. The court left the felony murder conviction in place, but credited the time served under the attempted robbery conviction against the life sentence. The State Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's order and rejected Thomas' argument that, since he had completed his commuted sentence, his continued confinement under the longer sentence violated the double jeopardy prohibition against multiple sentences for the same offense. Thomas then sought a writ of habeas corpus in the Federal District Court. The court denied relief, ruling that Thomas had not suffered a double jeopardy violation because he had not been subjected to a greater punishment than intended by the legislature. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, under this Court's decisions in Ex parte Lange, 18 Wall. 163, and In re Bradley, 318 U.S. 50, once Thomas had satisfied one of the two sentences that could have been imposed by law, he could not be required to serve the other. It held further that Morris v. Mathews, 475 U.S. 237 -- which held that an unlawful conviction of felony murder and the underlying felony could be remedied by resentencing on a lesser included offense of nonfelony murder -- was inapposite, since the prisoner in that case had not completed either of his sentences.

Held: The state court remedy fully vindicated Thomas' double jeopardy rights. In the multiple punishments context, the Double Jeopardy Clause does no more than prevent the sentencing court from prescribing greater punishment than the legislature intended. Missouri v. Hunter, 459 U.S. 359, 366. As a result of the state trial court's ruling, Thomas now stands convicted of felony murder alone, and his confinement under

Page 377

the single sentence imposed for that crime with credit for time already served is not double jeopardy. Thomas' reliance on Lange, supra, and Bradley, supra, is misplaced. Both cases involved alternative punishments that were prescribed by the legislature for a single criminal act, whereas the issue here involves separate sentences imposed for what the sentencing court thought to be separately punishable offenses, one far more serious than the other. Bradley also involved alternative sentences of two different types, fine and imprisonment. While it would not have been possible to "credit" a fine against time in prison, crediting time served under one sentence against the term of another has long been an accepted practice. Moreover, in a true alternative sentences case, it is difficult to say that the legislature intended one punishment over the other, for the legislature viewed each alternative as appropriate for some cases. Here, however, the legislature plainly intended that the person who committed murder during a felony would be convicted of felony murder or separately of the felony and nonfelony murder. It did not intend that an attempted robbery conviction would suffice as an alternative sanction for murder. Extension of Bradley beyond its facts would also lead to anomalous results since, had Thomas been sentenced to life imprisonment first, he would not have had a double jeopardy claim; and since he concedes that the unlawful imposition of concurrent sentences can be cured by vacating the shorter of the two even where it has been completed. Sentencing is not a game where a wrong move by a judge means immunity for the prisoner. Bozza v. United States, 330 U.S. 160, 166-167. Pp. 380-387.

844 F.2d 1337, reversed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 387. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, J., joined, and in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, except as to the footnote, post, p. 388.

Page 378

KENNEDY, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

After it became apparent that two consecutive sentences had been imposed where state law permitted but one, a Missouri court vacated the shorter of the two and credited the time already served against the remaining sentence. At the time the court entered its order, the prisoner had completed serving the shorter sentence. The question presented is whether the longer sentence can remain in force, consistent with double jeopardy principles.

I

Respondent Larry Thomas attempted to rob a St. Louis, Missouri, auto parts store in 1972. Inside the store, respondent drew a gun and announced a holdup. One of the store's customers was armed, and he tried to thwart the robbery. Respondent shot and killed him in an exchange of gunfire. Respondent was convicted in 1973 by a St. Louis Circuit Court jury both of attempted robbery and of first-degree felony murder for killing during the commission of a felony. The trial court sentenced respondent to consecutive terms of 15 years for the attempted robbery and life imprisonment for the felony murder, with the 15-year sentence to run first. The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed respondent's conviction on direct appeal. State v. Thomas, 522 S.W.2d 74 (Mo.App. 1975).

In 1977, respondent sought state postconviction relief, arguing that it was improper for the trial court to impose separate sentences for felony murder and the underlying felony. While respondent's case was pending, the Missouri Supreme Court accepted this argument in unrelated cases, holding that the Missouri Legislature had not intended to allow separate punishments under the felony murder statute.

Page 379

See State v. Morgan, 612 S.W.2d 1 (1981) (en banc); [109 S.Ct. 2531] State v. Olds, 603 S.W.2d 501 (1980) (en banc).1 In June, 1981, with respondent's postconviction motion still pending, the Governor of Missouri commuted his 15-year sentence for attempted robbery to "a term ending June 16, 1981." Respondent remained in prison under the murder sentence. In 1982, the state trial court vacated respondent's attempted robbery conviction and 15-year sentence, holding under Olds, supra, that respondent could not be required to serve both sentences. The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the order vacating the sentence, but rejected respondent's argument that he was entitled to immediate release. Respondent had argued that, because he had completed the shorter, commuted sentence, his continued confinement under the longer sentence constituted double jeopardy. The Missouri Court noted that respondent was in no way prejudiced by the trial court's ruling, as his entire time of incarceration was credited against the life sentence. Thomas v. State, 665 S.W.2d 621 (1983).

Respondent then sought a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. The United States District Court for the Eastern District [109 S.Ct. 2525] of Missouri denied relief, holding that respondent had not suffered a double jeopardy violation because he had not been subjected to greater punishment than intended by the legislature. A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded. 816 F.2d 364 (1987). The majority opinion noted that, as a result of the Governor's commutation, respondent had legally satisfied the 15-year sentence. See State v. Cerny, 248 S.W.2d 844 (Mo. 1952). It further held that, under this Court's decisions in Ex parte Lange, 18 Wall. 163 (1874), and In re Bradley, 318 U.S. 50 (1943), once

Page 380

respondent completed one of the two sentences that could have been imposed by law, he could not be required to serve any part of the other. The majority went on, however, to hold that the double jeopardy violation could be cured under this Court's decision in Morris v. Mathews, 475 U.S. 237 (1986), which held that an unlawful conviction of both felony murder and the underlying felony could be remedied by resentencing on a lesser included offense of nonfelony murder. The panel therefore granted a conditional writ, so that respondent could be resentenced for the non-jeopardy-barred offense of nonfelony murder or released.

Judge McMillian concurred in part and dissented in part. He agreed that respondent's double jeopardy rights were violated, but stated that he would not allow resentencing because he preferred the analysis of JUSTICE BRENNAN's dissenting opinion in Mathews. 816 F.2d at 371. Judge Bowman dissented, concluding that the double jeopardy prohibition against multiple punishments was not violated, because respondent would serve time only under the life sentence, which was a single valid punishment intended by the legislature. Judge Bowman joined Judge Hanson, however, in holding that respondent could be resentenced under Mathews.

The Eighth Circuit granted rehearing en banc and ordered respondent's unconditional release. 844 F.2d 1337 (1988). The court held that, under Lange, supra, and Bradley, supra,...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP