Williams v. United States, No. 16-CO-570

Docket NºNo. 16-CO-570
Citation205 A.3d 837
Case DateApril 11, 2019
CourtCourt of Appeals of Columbia District

205 A.3d 837

Brian K. WILLIAMS, Appellant,
v.
UNITED STATES, Appellee.

No. 16-CO-570

District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Argued June 5, 2018
Decided April 11, 2019


Mikel-Meredith Weidman, Public Defender Service, with whom Samia Fam, Public Defender Service, was on the brief, for appellant.

Sharon A. Sprague, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Jessie K. Liu, United States Attorney, Channing D. Phillips, United States Attorney at the time of initial briefing, and Elizabeth Trosman, Suzanne Grealy Curt, Angela N. Buckner, Patricia A. Heffernan, and Eric Hansford, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

Before Glickman, Thompson, and Easterly, Associate Judges.

Dissenting opinion by Associate Judge Easterly at page 855.

Glickman, Associate Judge:

Appellant Brian Williams is serving a sentence of 62 years to life in prison for two murders and other offenses committed when he was 17 years of age. He appeals from the denial of a motion collaterally challenging the constitutionality of his conviction and sentence pursuant to D.C. Code § 23-110 (2012 Repl.) Appellant contends his sentence is "de facto" life without parole ("LWOP") and therefore unconstitutional and subject to correction under the Supreme Court's decisions in Miller v. Alabama1 and Montgomery v. Louisiana .2 Miller held that "mandatory life [imprisonment] 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."3 In so holding, as Montgomery subsequently clarified, Miller "bar[red] life without parole ... for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility."4 All other offenders who were juveniles at the time of their crimes are entitled to "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."5 Montgomery further held that this is a substantive rule of constitutional law

205 A.3d 840

that applies retroactively to prisoners whose sentences were final when Miller was decided.6 Such prisoners, the Court held, "must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored."7 Accordingly, because the sentencing court in the present case did not find appellant to be permanently incorrigible, he asks us to vacate his sentence and remand his case for resentencing.

The United States concedes that an aggregate term-of-years sentence for multiple offenses qualifies as "de facto" LWOP for purposes of Miller and Montgomery if it precludes parole consideration for a period of time clearly exceeding the defendant's natural life expectancy.8 The government argues, however, that the holdings of Miller and Montgomery are inapplicable to this case because they apply only to mandatory LWOP sentences (i.e., only when the sentencing court has no discretion to sentence the offender to less than LWOP or its equivalent), and not to discretionary LWOP sentences such as the sentence appellant received. There is a conflict in the lower courts over this issue, and on March 18, 2019, the Supreme Court granted the petition for certiorari in Mathena v. Malvo to settle it.9 As we explain in this opinion, our disposition of this appeal makes it unnecessary to await the Supreme Court's ultimate decision in Malvo . We can assume, without deciding, that the Eighth Amendment principles enunciated in Miller and Montgomery apply regardless of whether the LWOP sentence is "mandatory" or "discretionary."

The government also disputes appellant's claim that his aggregate sentence rendered him ineligible for parole for as long as, or longer than, his life expectancy. This is a factual question that the record before us does not resolve, though the period of appellant's ineligibility for parole does appear to be close to his expected life span.10 For purposes of this appeal, we may assume, without deciding, that appellant's sentence as imposed was "de facto" LWOP.

The government's primary argument on appeal is that appellant is not entitled to the resentencing relief he requests, even assuming the applicability of Miller and Montgomery , because the Council of the District of Columbia has legislatively remedied the claimed Eighth Amendment

205 A.3d 841

infirmity in his sentence by making him eligible for release from prison well before his current parole-eligibility date. We agree with the government on this latter point.

Montgomery held that Miller violations may be remedied legislatively by allowing juvenile offenders who received LWOP sentences "to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them."11 Although the District prospectively abolished parole almost two decades ago, the Council adopted a comparable remedy for unconstitutional LWOP sentences in the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016 (the "IRAA").12 The IRAA permits a defendant who has served at least 20 years of imprisonment for an offense committed before his 18th birthday to apply to the court (instead of to a parole board) for relief from his sentence in light of his lesser culpability as a juvenile and his maturation and rehabilitation in prison. Because we conclude that the IRAA provides appellant with the requisite "meaningful opportunity" to obtain release from prison well before the end of his natural life expectancy based on his maturation and rehabilitation, we deny his request for a resentencing.

I.

On March 11, 1990, appellant and three other men armed themselves with pistols and a shotgun and carried out a plan to rob two cocaine dealers. During the robbery, the two unarmed dealers were shot and killed while lying face down on the floor, and the wife of one of the victims was assaulted. The conspirators got away with 17 ounces of cocaine, which they divided up among themselves. When appellant was arrested, he told police he was at home with his girlfriend on the night of the murders; he later urged his girlfriend to lie to the grand jury in support of that alibi.

At appellant's trial in January 1992, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on fourteen counts, including multiple counts of first-degree felony murder while armed. This court affirmed appellant's convictions in 1995 and remanded the case for vacatur of those convictions that were subject to merger.13 This was done, and on July 28, 1995, the trial judge sentenced appellant to an aggregate sentence of 62 years to life in prison.14 Appellant was seventeen years old when he committed the offenses. According to the Bureau of Prisons, he will not be eligible for parole until 2048, when he will be 75 years old.

205 A.3d 842

On April 6, 2015, appellant filed a pro se motion presenting the claim that his sentence was unconstitutional under Miller because it was equivalent to a sentence of life without parole.15 The government opposed the motion. On May 9, 2016, the trial judge ruled that appellant was not entitled to relief. The judge rejected appellant's Eighth Amendment claim on the grounds that he had not sentenced appellant under a statute mandating a life sentence without the possibility of parole and that he had taken appellant's youth into account.16 Appellant timely noticed this appeal.17

II.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments."18 In the years since appellant was sentenced, the Supreme Court issued a series of four decisions applying this prohibition to the sentencing of offenders who were juveniles when their crimes were committed.

In the first of these decisions, Roper v. Simmons ,19 the Court held that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment prohibits imposition of the death penalty on an offender who was younger than 18 when he committed a capital crime. In so ruling, the Court set forth the premises for concluding that the most severe punishments are, or may be, disproportionately harsh when applied to juveniles because of their lessened culpability and greater prospects for maturation and rehabilitation. The Court identified "[t]hree general differences between juveniles under 18 and adults demonstrat[ing] that juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders."20 First, as compared to adults, juveniles have "a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility," causing them to act more impulsively and recklessly; second, juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to outside pressures and negative influences, "including peer pressure"; and third, they are more amenable to correction and reformation because their characters are "not as well formed" and their personality traits are "more transitory, less fixed."21 While these characteristics may not be true of every juvenile under 18, the Court recognized

205 A.3d 843

that "[i]t is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption."22

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1 practice notes
  • United States v. Thompson, No. 6:19-CR-22-REW-HAI
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Eastern District of Kentucky
    • August 24, 2020
    ...was not left "in place"; it was superseded by a new procedure providing all that the Eighth Amendment requires.Williams v. United States, 205 A.3d 837, 849 (D.C. 2019). Although Thompson repeatedly calls his life sentence unconstitutional, the suspect element of the sentence is not the life......
1 cases
  • United States v. Thompson, No. 6:19-CR-22-REW-HAI
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Eastern District of Kentucky
    • August 24, 2020
    ...was not left "in place"; it was superseded by a new procedure providing all that the Eighth Amendment requires.Williams v. United States, 205 A.3d 837, 849 (D.C. 2019). Although Thompson repeatedly calls his life sentence unconstitutional, the suspect element of the sentence is not the life......

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