Florida Supreme Court reverses life sentence with parole for juvenile offender pursuant to Miller.

Angelo Atwell v. State, SC14-193 (May 26, 2016).

In line with virtually every opinion post-Miller, the Florida Supreme Court struck down another life sentence imposed upon a juvenile offender.

Mr. Atwell, who was 16 at the time of the offenses, was convicted of armed robbery and first-degree murder.  Pursuant to the sentencing scheme at the time of the offenses, (1990), he received a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25-years for first-degree murder and life without parole for armed robbery.  The Supreme Court did not address the life sentence without parole, but indicated that it was clearly unconstitutional and could be corrected at the trial court level.  Mr. Atwell did not file a motion to correct that portion of his sentence, and as such the FSP could not address it in its opinion. Thus, the opinion is isolated to the sentence for first-degree murder involving parole.

Under 1990 sentencing scheme, 25 years after the sentence, the Commission on Offender Review conducted a parole hearing and set his presumptive parole release date at 2130 – 140 years after the crime, and far exceeding the defendant’s life expectancy.

Most of the cases post Miller highlight the problems of imposing a life sentence without parole.  Atwell is critical because it addresses the scenarios where the offender received parole as an option.  Florida abolished parole more than 20 years ago. The State has long argued that any offender sentenced to life with parole is ineligible for relief pursuant to Miller, since Miller applied only to life sentences without parole.  The Supreme Court disagreed, and in doing so, provided the possibility for new sentencing hearings for any juvenile offender sentenced to life with parole.

The problem here is that while parole was an option, the parole board is limited statutorily as to granting parole.    The defendant’s true eligibility for parole is determined by objective parole guidelines that have nothing to do with individualized factors related to the offender’s age at the time of offense.  Despite having parole as an option for release, Florida’s scheme effectively denies release during the offender’s natural life.  Thus, a life sentence with parole is the same as a life sentence without parole.

Because the effect of Mr. Atwell’s sentence is a life sentence, the case was remanded for resentencing, where the Court must consider all relevant factors as set forth in Chapter 2014-220, Laws of Florida.

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