Williams v. State

Decision Date09 October 2020
Docket NumberNo. 121,815,121,815
Citation58 Kan.App.2d 947,476 P.3d 805
Parties Ronell WILLIAMS, Appellant, v. STATE of Kansas, Appellee.
CourtKansas Court of Appeals

Joseph A. Desch, of Law Office of Joseph A. Desch, of Topeka, for appellant.

Daniel G. Obermeier, assistant district attorney, Mark A. Dupree Sr., district attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, for appellee.

Before Standridge, P.J., Hill and Atcheson, JJ.

Standridge, J.:

Ronell Williams committed a very serious, violent crime when he was 14 years old and, as a result, was convicted of two counts of premeditated first-degree murder arising from the death of two victims. He is serving two concurrent life sentences without the possibility of parole for 50 years (hard 50). Williams will spend at least a half century in jail before he is eligible to be considered for release.

When the sentences originally were imposed, the trial judge did not consider the characteristics and circumstances attendant to Williams' age. In the past decade, however, the United States Supreme Court sent a clear message in that regard: "children are different" when it comes to sentencing, and "youth and its attendant characteristics" must be considered at the time a juvenile is sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Miller v. Alabama , 567 U.S. 460, 465, 480, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012). The Supreme Court recognized the mitigating qualities of youth and directed that judges in those cases consider a number of factors at sentencing, including immaturity and "failure to appreciate risks and consequences"; "family and home environment"; family and peer pressures; an "inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors" or the juvenile's own attorney; and "the possibility of rehabilitation." 567 U.S. at 477-78, 132 S.Ct. 2455. The Miller Court ultimately held that that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits a mandatory sentencing scheme that includes a punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender who has been convicted of homicide if the sentencing process does not give the sentencing court the discretion to consider a juvenile offender's youth and individual attendant characteristics as part of the sentencing process. 567 U.S. at 489, 132 S.Ct. 2455.

Citing Miller and the sentencing court's failure to consider the characteristics and circumstances attendant to his age, Williams brings this K.S.A. 60-1507 motion challenging his hard 50 sentence as constitutionally disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment. In response, the State argues the holding in Miller is inapplicable to the facts of this case because Williams' hard 50 sentence is not equivalent to life without parole and was imposed under a discretionary sentencing scheme. For the reasons stated below, however, we hold (1) the constitutional protections afforded under Miller are triggered regardless of whether the sentencing scheme is mandatory or discretionary, (2) Williams' hard 50 sentence is the functional equivalent of a sentence of life without parole for purposes of the constitutional protections in Miller , and (3) Williams was deprived of the constitutional guarantees afforded under Miller because the sentencing court failed to fully consider his diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change before imposing the hard 50 sentence on him. As a result, we reverse and remand the case, with specific directions, for resentencing on the premeditated first-degree murder convictions. We also vacate the part of Williams' sentence imposing lifetime postrelease supervision.

FACTS

Highly summarized, the essential facts presented at trial to support the underlying criminal charges against Williams are fairly straightforward. On August 3, 1999, Williams and his twin brother, age 14, stole a gun from a residence and walked away from the crime. After proceeding about a block, they saw Wilbur Williams in his front yard on the way to his mailbox. The brothers forced Wilbur back inside his house where they held him and his wife Wilma prisoner while searching the house for items to steal. Williams' twin brother left the house to drive the victim's vehicle around to the front of the house. While his brother was moving the vehicle, Williams shot and killed Wilbur and Wilma. The victims are not related to the brothers.

The district court authorized the State to prosecute Williams as an adult pursuant to K.S.A. 1999 Supp. 38-1636(f)(1), and a jury later convicted Williams of two counts premeditated first-degree murder, one count aggravated robbery, and one count aggravated burglary. The default sentence for premeditated first-degree murder was life without the possibility of parole for 25 years (hard 25). See K.S.A. 1999 Supp. 21-4706(c) ; K.S.A. 1999 Supp. 22-3717(b)(1). The sentence was enhanced to a hard 50 sentence if the sentencing judge found that one or more aggravating circumstances existed and that the aggravators were not outweighed by mitigating circumstances. K.S.A. 1999 Supp. 21-4635(c). After hearing the arguments of counsel and the statements from individuals in support of Williams and from the victims' family, the court found that one or more of the statutory aggravating circumstances existed and that the aggravating circumstances were not outweighed by any existing mitigating circumstances. For each of the two first-degree murder charges, the district court imposed a hard 50 sentence. The court also imposed lifetime postrelease supervision. For the aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary convictions, the district court sentenced Williams to 59 months and 32 months, respectively. The court ordered all four sentences to run concurrently. Our Supreme Court affirmed Williams' convictions and sentences on March 19, 2004. State v. Williams , 277 Kan. 338, 85 P.3d 697 (2004).

On March 15, 2005, Williams filed his first motion for relief under K.S.A. 60-1507. See Williams v. State , No. 99,516, 2009 WL 1140260 (Kan. App. 2009) (unpublished opinion). In it, Williams claimed his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request a postinterview report from Dr. Jan Roosa, a clinical psychologist who testified on his behalf at trial. Williams argued counsel's deficient performance prejudiced him by severely limiting Dr. Roosa's ability to testify fully about his expert opinion. The district court held an evidentiary hearing but ultimately denied Williams relief, finding he failed to show that, but for counsel's deficient performance, the result of the trial would have been different. A panel of our court affirmed. See 2009 WL 1140260, at *8.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court held in Miller , 567 U.S. at 489, 132 S.Ct. 2455, that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a mandatory sentencing scheme that includes a punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender who has been convicted of homicide if the sentencing process does not give the sentencing court the discretion to consider a juvenile offender's youth and individual attendant characteristics as part of the sentencing process. In 2016, the United States Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana , 577 U.S. ––––, 136 S. Ct. 718, 732, 193 L. Ed. 2d 599 (2016), which held that the legal principles announced in Miller are substantive and therefore retroactive in cases on collateral review.

On September 30, 2016, Williams filed a second pro se K.S.A. 60-1507 motion claiming the sentencing structure under which his hard 50 sentence was imposed violated Miller , which means his sentence is now unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. Specifically, Williams argued that because his hard 50 sentence is the practical equivalent of a life sentence without parole and it was imposed under a mandatory sentencing scheme, the constitutional findings in Miller require that his sentence be vacated and the case remanded so the court can consider his youth and attendant characteristics before resentencing him. The district court did not reach the merits of Williams' argument and dismissed the habeas motion as untimely and successive.

ANALYSIS

Williams claims the district court erred by summarily denying his motion on procedural grounds because he sufficiently established the manifest injustice and exceptional circumstances necessary to justify his untimely and successive filing. Assuming we find in his favor on this procedural claim of error, Williams asks us to find in his favor on the merits of his claims: that his hard 50 sentence must be vacated and the matter remanded for a new sentencing hearing with directions for the court to consider his youth and its attendant characteristics as set forth in Miller before imposing a new sentence. Williams also claims the district court erred by imposing lifetime postrelease supervision as part of his sentence for the premeditated first-degree murder convictions. We address each of Williams' claims in turn.

A. Summary dismissal on procedural grounds

The district court summarily denied Williams' K.S.A. 60-1507 motion on procedural grounds, finding the 2016 motion was successive to his 2005 habeas corpus motion and untimely filed. See K.S.A. 2019 Supp. 60-1507(c), (f). But Williams argues that the Supreme Court's decision in Miller is an intervening change in the law that constitutes an exceptional circumstance justifying our consideration of a successive motion. Williams also argues that the one-year time limit should be extended by the court to prevent a manifest injustice; specifically, that the untimely nature of his motion should be excused because Millerthe case providing substantive support for the 60-1507 claim that his sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment—was not decided until 2012 and was not given retroactive effect until the Supreme Court decided Montgomery in 2016.

1. Exceptional circumstances

When a district court summarily denies a K.S.A. 60-1507 motion,...

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