Nelson v. State, A19-1451

Decision Date29 July 2020
Docket NumberA19-1451
Citation947 N.W.2d 31
Parties Jonas David NELSON, Appellant, v. STATE of Minnesota, Respondent.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court
OPINION

HUDSON, Justice.

Appellant Jonas David Nelson was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder in 2015 for the shooting death of his father and was sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of release. He was 18 years and 7 days old on the date of the offense. We affirmed Nelson's conviction on direct appeal. Nelson filed a petition for postconviction relief, arguing that the rule announced in Miller v. Alabama , 567 U.S. 460, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012), and later clarified in Montgomery v. Louisiana , 577 U.S. ––––, 136 S. Ct. 718, 193 L.Ed.2d 599 (2016), should be extended to adult offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth. The district court denied the petition. On appeal, Nelson renews his Miller / Montgomery argument. He also asks to us interpret Article I, Section 5 of the Minnesota Constitution to provide greater protection than the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Because the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Nelson's postconviction petition and Nelson forfeited review of his claim under the Minnesota Constitution, we affirm.

FACTS

Appellant Jonas David Nelson was 18 years and 7 days old when he shot and killed his father. On January 6, 2014, while his father lay sleeping on the living room floor, Nelson walked downstairs from his bedroom, retrieved his father's rifle from a gun cabinet, and loaded the rifle with two cartridges. He entered the living room, where he shot his sleeping father in the head from several feet away. Nelson shot the second round through the bottom pane of the French doors in the living room, then returned the rifle to the gun cabinet and placed the shell casings in a bucket in the basement.

After calling 911, Nelson told law enforcement officers that he had been in his bedroom when he heard glass breaking and a "pop," and suggested that someone must have shot his father from outside the house. Officers identified inconsistencies between Nelson's description and the evidence—most notably that his father's brain matter and skull fragments lay between the body and the broken pane of the French doors. After Nelson was told that law enforcement would conduct forensic analysis of the crime scene and his clothes and hands, he confessed.1

On March 26, 2014, a grand jury indicted Nelson for premeditated first-degree murder, intentional second-degree murder, and second-degree murder while committing second-degree assault. Following a jury trial, Nelson was convicted on all three counts. The district court sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of release (LWOR), the mandatory sentence for adult offenders convicted of first-degree premeditated murder. Minn. Stat. § 609.106, subd. 2(1) (2018). An adult is "an individual 18 years of age or over." Minn. Stat. § 645.45(3) (2018).

Nelson appealed his convictions and sentence. We affirmed Nelson's first-degree premeditated murder conviction and sentence, but vacated the convictions on the lesser-included offenses. State v. Nelson , 886 N.W.2d 505, 511–12 (Minn. 2016).

On October 16, 2018, Nelson filed a petition for postconviction relief. In it, Nelson stated that his sentence violated the "Eighth Amendment to the United States and Minnesota Constitutions." Nelson did not cite Article I, Section 5 or any other provision of the Minnesota Constitution. Instead, his argument focused on the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the rule announced in Miller , 567 U.S. 460, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407, and later clarified in Montgomery , 577 U.S. at ––––, 136 S. Ct. at 734 ( Miller / Montgomery rule).2 As clarified, the rule renders "life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for ‘a class of defendants because of their status’—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth." Montgomery , 577 U.S. at ––––, 136 S. Ct. at 734 (emphasis added) (citation omitted). Nelson argued that the Miller / Montgomery rule applied "equally to a defendant who was just one week beyond his eighteenth birthday," because "the neurological and behavioral characteristics that distinguish juveniles from adults are also present in eighteen year-olds." Put differently, Nelson sought to remove the word "juvenile" from the Miller / Montgomery rule, thereby expanding the class of protected defendants to "offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth."

After considering the parties’ arguments, the district court denied the petition.3 In its analysis, the district court considered at length cases from the United States Supreme Court; interpretations of that jurisprudence by state and federal courts, including our own; and separation of powers principles. Although the district court recognized "the significant policy arguments in favor of an individualized sentencing hearing," it concluded that the "ethical, moral, and public policy-based concerns" implicated by the facts of Nelson's case posed questions for the Minnesota Legislature. Ultimately, the district court concluded that "[t]he application of the statutorily-required sentence to [Nelson] does not represent a violation of his 8th Amendment rights" because "the Supreme Court of the United States and the Supreme Court of Minnesota have drawn a line at the age of 18 for the purposes of sentencing as relevant here."

ANALYSIS

On appeal, Nelson asserts that the district court abused its discretion by denying his petition for postconviction relief. According to Nelson, the district court's legal conclusion that the Miller / Montgomery rule draws a bright line at age 18 "is simply not consistent with the nature of the Eighth Amendment inquiry in this case." He also asks us to interpret Article I, Section 5 of the Minnesota Constitution to provide greater protection than the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We consider each argument in turn. I.

We review the denial of a petition for postconviction relief for an abuse of discretion. Hannon v. State , 889 N.W.2d 789, 791 (Minn. 2017). A district court abuses its discretion when it has "exercised its discretion in an arbitrary or capricious manner, based its ruling on an erroneous view of the law, or made clearly erroneous factual findings." Reed v. State , 793 N.W.2d 725, 729 (Minn. 2010). "Constitutional interpretation is a legal question that we review de novo." State v. Juarez , 837 N.W.2d 473, 479 (Minn. 2013).

The Eighth Amendment, applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments." U.S. Const. amend. VIII ; Roper v. Simmons , 543 U.S. 551, 560, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 161 L.Ed.2d 1 (2005). "The concept of proportionality is central to the Eighth Amendment." Graham v. Florida , 560 U.S. 48, 59, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010). Interpretation of the Eighth Amendment is to be "guided by the ‘evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’ " Thompson v. Oklahoma , 487 U.S. 815, 821, 108 S.Ct. 2687, 101 L.Ed.2d 702 (1988) (plurality opinion) (quoting Trop v. Dulles , 356 U.S. 86, 101, 78 S.Ct. 590, 2 L.Ed.2d 630 (1958) (plurality opinion)).

When a defendant brings a categorical challenge under the Eighth Amendment, a court will:

consider[ ] objective indicia of society's standards, as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice, to determine whether there is a national consensus against the sentencing practice at issue. Next, guided by the standards elaborated by controlling precedents and by the Court's own understanding and interpretation of the Eighth Amendment's text, history, meaning, and purpose, the Court must determine in the exercise of its own independent judgment whether the punishment in question violates the Constitution.

Graham , 560 U.S. at 61, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Broadly, Nelson argues that, under the Miller / Montgomery rule, the mandatory imposition of life without the possibility of release for adult offenders who are cognitively similar to juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment.4 In Miller , the Supreme Court held that "mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’ " 567 U.S. at 465, 132 S.Ct. 2455.5 And, in Montgomery , the Supreme Court clarified that Miller announced a new categorical rule that "rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for ‘a class of defendants because of their status’—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth." 577 U.S. at ––––, 136 S. Ct. at 734 (citation omitted). Nelson contends that the Miller / Montgomery rule applies with equal force to him, an 18-year-old offender, because an evolving scientific and national consensus shows that there are no material neurodevelopmental differences between juveniles and 18 year olds.6

We considered the Miller / Montgomery rule for the first time in Jackson v. State , 883 N.W.2d 272 (Minn. 2016). In Jackson , we concluded that the Miller / Montgomery rule prohibited application of the mandatory sentencing provision of Minn. Stat. § 609.106 (2018), to "juveniles such as Jackson, whose LWOR [life without the possibility of release] sentences became final before the Miller rule was announced." 883 N.W.2d at 279. In discussing the proper remedy, we concluded that "sever[ing] the relevant LWOR provisions for everyone, both adults and juveniles," was inappropriate because "the mandatory imposition of LWOR sentences is constitutional for adults. " Id. at 280–81 (emphasis added) (discussing State v. Ali (Ali I ), 855 N.W.2d 235, 255 n.19 (Minn. 2014) (explaining that Minn. Stat. § 609.106 "is constitutional with respect...

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