Christopher J. v. Ames

Decision Date10 June 2019
Docket NumberNo. 17-0994,17-0994
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
Parties CHRISTOPHER J., Petitioner v. Donnie AMES, Superintendent, Mount Olive Correctional Complex, Respondent

242 W.Va. 64
828 S.E.2d 884

CHRISTOPHER J., Petitioner
v.
Donnie AMES, Superintendent, Mount Olive Correctional Complex, Respondent

No. 17-0994

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

Submitted: April 9, 2019
Filed: June 10, 2019
Concurring and Dissenting Opinion of Justice Armstead June 12, 2019


S. Andrew Arnold, Esq., Daniel J. Kirkland, Esq., Arnold & Bailey, PLLC, Charles Town, West Virginia Attorney for Petitioner

Patrick Morrisey, Esq., Attorney General, Caleb A. Ellis, Esq., Assistant Attorney General, Robert L. Hogan, Esq., Deputy Attorney General, Charleston, West Virginia Attorneys for Respondent

Hutchison, Justice:

828 S.E.2d 887

This appeal arises from a habeas corpus proceeding and was brought by Christopher J. (hereinafter "Petitioner") from the October 6, 2017, order of the Circuit Court of Berkeley County.1 In this appeal the Petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in finding (1) that he could not be considered for parole under W. Va. Code § 61-11-23(b) ; (2) that no false and perjured testimony was presented at his trial; and (3) that his sentence was not disproportionate to the crimes he committed. The State argues that the issues were properly resolved by the circuit court and should be affirmed.2 Upon careful review of the briefs, the appendix record, the arguments of the parties, and the applicable legal authority, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

I.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The underlying facts of this case are not in dispute.3 The record in this matter shows that in 2007, the mother of two infant boys asked the Petitioner to babysit them.4 The Petitioner was sixteen years old at the time. While babysitting the two children, the Petitioner sexually abused both of them. The two children did not report the sexual abuse to their parents until 2012. After the children's parents informed the police of the allegations, the Petitioner was indicted on two charges of sexual assault in the first degree, and two charges of sexual abuse by a parent, guardian, custodian, or person in a position of trust.

The Petitioner was tried for the crimes as an adult in 2013. The jury acquitted Petitioner of one count of sexual assault in the first degree, however, the jury found him guilty of the second count of sexual assault in the first degree and the two counts of sexual abuse by a parent, guardian, custodian, or person in a position of trust. The circuit court sentenced Petitioner to an aggregate sentence of thirty-five to seventy-five years of incarceration. The Petitioner was further sentenced to fifty years of supervised release and was required to register as a sexual offender for his lifetime.

The Petitioner appealed the conviction to this Court. In 2014, while the appeal was still pending, the Legislature enacted the Juvenile Sentencing Reform Act, W. Va. Code § 61-11-23.5 This Court entered a Memorandum Decision affirming the conviction on June 13, 2014, several days after the effective date of the Juvenile Sentencing Reform Act, June 6, 2014. The Petitioner subsequently filed this habeas corpus proceeding in circuit court.6 The circuit court entered an order on

828 S.E.2d 888

October 6, 2017, that found the Petitioner failed to set out any grounds that warranted relief.7 This appeal from the habeas proceeding followed.

II.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

In this case, the Petitioner challenges the circuit court's order denying his habeas petition. We review the circuit court's order under the following standard:

In reviewing challenges to the findings and conclusions of the circuit court in a habeas corpus action, we apply a three-prong standard of review. We review the final order and the ultimate disposition under an abuse of discretion standard; the underlying factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard; and questions of law are subject to a de novo review.

Syl. pt. 1, Mathena v. Haines , 219 W.Va. 417, 633 S.E.2d 771 (2006). With this standard in mind, we now address the issues presented.

III.

DISCUSSION

The Petitioner has set out three assignments of error. We will review each assignment of error separately below.8

A. Retroactivity of W.Va. Code § 61-11-23(b)

The first issue raised by the Petitioner is that the circuit court erred in concluding that the Legislature did not intend for W. Va. Code § 61-11-23(b) of the Juvenile Sentencing Reform Act to be applied retroactively. The State argues that the circuit court's ruling was correct and that there is nothing in the text of the statute which shows that the Legislature intended for the statute to operate retroactively. In order to fully understand the Juvenile Sentencing Reform Act, some discussion is in order regarding the trilogy of United States Supreme Court decisions that prompted legislative action in this area.

The first case in the trilogy was Roper v. Simmons , 543 U.S. 551, 125 S. Ct. 1183, 161 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2005). The defendant in Roper was convicted of capital murder by the state of Missouri and sentenced to death. When the defendant committed the murder, he was seventeen years old. After exhausting his direct appeals, the defendant filed a habeas petition in state court arguing that the execution of individuals under 18 years of age at the time they committed their capital crimes, is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed with the defendant and vacated his death sentence. The state appealed to the United States Supreme Court. In Roper , the Supreme Court held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution prohibit a death penalty sentence for persons who committed capital crimes as juveniles. The decision affirming the lower court was based, in part, on a recognition of three general differences between juveniles and adults. The Supreme Court reasoned as follows:

Three general differences between juveniles under 18 and adults demonstrate that juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders. First, as any parent knows and as the scientific and sociological studies respondent
828 S.E.2d 889
and his amici cite tend to confirm, [a] lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults and are more understandable among the young. These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions. It has been noted that adolescents are overrepresented statistically in virtually every category of reckless behavior. In recognition of the comparative immaturity and irresponsibility of juveniles, almost every State prohibits those under 18 years of age from voting, serving on juries, or marrying without parental consent.

The second area of difference is that juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure. This is explained in part by the prevailing circumstance that juveniles have less control, or less experience with control, over their own environment.

The third broad difference is that the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult. The personality traits of juveniles are more transitory, less fixed.

These differences render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders. The susceptibility of juveniles to immature and irresponsible behavior means their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult. Their own vulnerability and comparative lack of control over their immediate surroundings mean juveniles have a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for failing to escape negative influences in their whole environment.

Roper , 543 U.S. at 569-570, 125 S. Ct. at 1195 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

The Supreme Court expanded its Roper analysis in Graham v. Florida , 560 U.S. 48, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 176 L. Ed. 2d 825 (2010), to persons sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes committed when they were juveniles. The defendant in Graham was charged by the state of Florida with armed burglary and attempted armed robbery. The defendant was sixteen years old at the time of the crimes. The defendant pled guilty to both charges. The trial court accepted the plea but deferred sentencing the defendant and placed him on probation. The defendant subsequently violated probation and was sentenced under the plea to life imprisonment for the armed burglary and 15 years for the attempted armed robbery. After the defendant exhausted his direct appeal in state courts, he filed a petition for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. Consistent with its reasoning in Roper , the Supreme Court granted relief to the defendant in Graham , in part, based upon the following:

No recent data provide reason to reconsider the Court's observations in Roper about the nature of juveniles. As petitioner's amici point out, developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental
...

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