Beach v. State

Beach v. State, 2015 MT 118 (May 5, 2015) (Baker, J.; McKinnon, J., concurring: Wheat, J., dissenting; Shea, J., dissenting; Cotter, J. dissenting) (4-3, petition denied)

Issue: Whether Barry Beach’s sentence of 100 years without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional under Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).

Short Answer: No.

Petition for writ of habeas corpus denied

Facts: Beach was convicted of deliberate homicide in 1984 for a crime committed in 1979, when Beach was 17. The district court imposed the maximum sentence of 100 years without the possibility of parole. The record does not show that the court expressly considered Beach’s youth when imposing the sentence.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Beach petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that his sentence is unconstitutional under Miller v. Alabama, which requires certain procedures be followed before sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court denies the petition on the basis that the Miller rule is not retroactive.

Reasoning: (1) The state argues that Beach’s petition is procedurally barred. However, because Miller was not decided until 2012, Beach could not have raised a claim under that case until after the time limits for direct review and postconviction relief had run. The petition is not procedurally barred.

(2) The 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, requires proportionality in sentencing, i.e., whether the punishment corresponds to an offender’s character, circumstances, and crime. In Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a sentence of life without possibility of parole cannot be mandated for juveniles, and that the sentence must take into account how children are different and how those differences counsel against sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.

Beach argues that his sentence equates to life without parole, and that it is unconstitutional because the sentencer did not consider how Beach’s age counseled against his sentence. Miller applies only if it created a rule that applies retroactively. New rules apply retroactively in federal criminal proceedings only if the rule is substantive, or if it is a watershed rule of criminal procedure implicating the fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding. Montana applies the federal framework.

The Court holds that Miller established a new rule that is not retroactive unless it is substantive or a watershed procedural rule. The Court further holds that the Miller rule is neither, and does not reach the merits of Beach’s petition.

Justice McKinnon’s Concurrence: Justice McKinnon would not find Miller to be a new rule, given that Montana has always required a judge to consider the individual characteristics of an offender — including age — in imposing a sentence. Beach fails to meet his burden of proving that Montana’s sentencing scheme is not already consistent with Miller.

Justice Wheat’s Dissent: Justice Wheat joins Section I of the plurality opinion, but would hold that Miller applies retroactively to Beach. He would find Beach’s sentence unconstitutional and grant the writ. State courts may provide broader retroactivity rules than federal courts, and Justice Wheat would depart from the federal framework here. While finality of judgments is important, the plurality only considered the effect of overturning Beach’s conviction. Beach is asking to be resentenced, not to be retried. The plurality’s decision is unfair. The sentencing court did not explicitly consider Beach’s age at sentencing. Justice Wheat would grant the petition and order Beach to be resentenced.

Justice Shea’s Dissent: Montana is not mandated to follow the federal retroactivity framework, and the framework is contrary to controlling Montana law. Stare decisis does not require the Court to follow Teague, an alternative retroactivity rule is contained in Montana’s habeas statutes and pre-Egelhoff opinions, and the Court is bound to follow that rule rather than Teague. “This case provides us with the choice of either grounding our retroactivity rule on Montana statutory law or on a precedent that both the U.S. Supreme Court, and the plurality, recognize was incorrectly decided. I would choose the former.” Justice Shea would remand for resentencing, with instructions to explicitly consider whether Beach was “‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,’” and not “‘the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity.’”

Justice Cotter’s Dissent: Justice Cotter dissents because she asserts the Miller rule is substantive and should be applied retroactively. She would remand for resentencing, and direct the court to determine whether Beach is “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”