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Rojas v. Ryan

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 2, 2018

Richard Rojas, Petitioner,
v.
Charles L Ryan, et al., Respondents.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          HONORABLE JOHN J. TUCHI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Petitioner Richard Rojas has filed a pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Doc. 1).

         I. SUMMARY OF CONCLUSION.

         The Arizona Court of Appeals, prior to Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718, 737 (2016), found that Petitioner's natural life sentences were imposed in accordance with the mandates of Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012). But the trial court did not discuss Petitioner's age-related characteristics and whether Petitioner's juvenile status counseled against a natural life sentence, which are expressly required by Miller. Because the Arizona Court of Appeals' decision is objectively unreasonable and not harmless, the Court recommends the matter be remanded to the state court for a new sentencing hearing that comports with the principles set forth in Miller.

         II. BACKGROUND.

         a. Factual and Procedural History.

         The Arizona Court of Appeals found the following facts and procedural history as true:[1]

Rojas and two co-defendants, Fernando Castellanos and Jonathon Arias, were indicted on two counts of first-degree murder, each a class 1 felony; two counts of armed robbery, each a class 2 felony and dangerous offense; and conspiracy to commit armed robbery, a class 2 felony and dangerous offense. The charges stemmed from the shooting tdheaths of Michael Fromme and Amy Hoppes at a carwash located near 59 Avenue and Missouri in Glendale during the early morning hours of March 4, 1999.

Prior to trial, the trial court granted Rojas's motion to sever and ordered that he be tried separately from his co-defendants. Upon trial to jury, Rojas was found guilty on both counts of first-degree murder. The jury additionally found Rojas guilty on the charges of conspiracy and armed robbery of Michael Fromme, but acquitted him of the armed robbery charge relating to Amy Hoppes. The trial court sentenced Rojas to two consecutive terms of natural life imprisonment on the convictions for first-degree murder and to two concurrent, aggravated eighteen-year prison terms on the conspiracy and robbery convictions.

(Doc. 12-2, Ex. H, at 16.)

         b. Direct Appeal.

         On May 9, 2001, Petitioner appealed his convictions and sentences. (Doc. 12-1, Ex. E, at 30.) On October 21, 2003, the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed Petitioner's convictions and sentences. (Doc. 12-2, Ex. H, at 29.) On March 15, 2004, the Arizona Supreme Court denied review. (Doc. 12-3, Ex. W, at 139.) On April 7, 2004, the mandate issued. (Doc. 12-2, Ex. L, at 86.)

         c. Petition for Post-Conviction Relief

         On June 25, 2013, Petitioner filed a petition for post-conviction relief arguing that “mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile are unconstitutional (Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2010)).” (Doc. 12-2, Ex. K, at 84). On July 9, 2013, the trial court noted that this proceeding was Petitioner's first Rule 32 proceeding, and that it was untimely. (Doc. 12-2, Ex. L, at 86.) The court addressed Petitioner's argument and dismissed his PCR notice, ruling as follows:

Defendant is claiming, pursuant to Ariz. R. Crim. P. 32.1(g), that there has been a significant change in the law that if applied retroactively to the defendant's case, would probably affect the outcome. Specifically, Defendant cites Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012).
The Defendant claims Miller constitutes a significant change in the law that applies to his case. For the purpose of this order only, the Court shall consider that Miller could be a significant change in the law. Defendant asserts that under Miller, a juvenile could not be sentenced to life imprisonment. This is a misreading of Miller which does not place a categorical ban on juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole. Rather, in Miller, the Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional. Hence, the judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances such as age prior to imposing either life with the possibility of parole or the harshest sentence possible for a juvenile, that being natural life without the possibility of parole.
In the instant case, the record demonstrates that the age of the Defendant was determined to be a mitigating factor. Even after considering the Defendant's age as a mitigating factor, the Court chose to sentence him to the term of his natural life. Since the sentence of natural life without the possibility of parole was not statutorily mandated and the Court had the discretion to order life with the possibility of parole but chose not to, defendant has failed to demonstrate that Miller is a significant change in the law as applied to his case.

(Id.).

         d. PCR Motion for Reconsideration.

         On July 21, 2013, Petitioner filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that the imposition of a life sentence without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment. (Doc. 12-3, Ex. N, at 2.) On July 24, 2013, the Arizona Justice Project filed a “Brief of Amicus Curiae in support of Petitioner's motion for reconsideration, ” requesting the court reconsider its dismissal of Petitioner's PCR notice, appoint Petitioner counsel, and allow Petitioner to file a full Petition for PCR “in order to develop several issues of first impression and statewide importance raised by his case.” (Id., Doc. 12-2, Ex. M, at 89.) On July 29, 2013, the trial court denied Petitioner's motion:

Under Rule 32, an exception to the preclusion rules exists when “there has been a significant change in the law that if determined to apply to the defendant's case would probably overturn the defendant's conviction or sentence.” Rule 32.1(g) (emphasis added). Defendant's request for relief presupposes that Miller applies retroactively, a determination that has not yet been made by this Court or under Arizona law.
Even assuming it is determined that Miller has retroactive application, there is an additional legal issue that must be addressed. In this matter, Defendant was sentenced to life without the possibility of release. The Miller court did not foreclose the court's authority to enter a sentence of this nature. Rather, Miller mandated that mitigating factors such as age must be considered by the Court before it may impose the “harshest sentence” on juvenile offenders.
The record in this matter is clear that the sentencing judge took into account the age of the defendant as part of the sentencing determination (page 13 of sentencing transcript). Therefore, if Miller has retroactive application, its requirements regarding mitigation have been met in this matter and there is no basis for defendant to be relieved from the natural life sentence that was imposed upon him.

(Doc. 12-3, Ex. O, at 8.)

         e. Arizona Court of Appeals.

         On August 26, 2013, Petitioner filed a petition for review in the Arizona Court of Appeals. (Doc. 12-3, Ex. P, at 10.) On November 12, 2013, the Arizona Justice Project filed another Amicus Curiae brief in the Arizona Court of Appeals. (Doc. 12-3, Ex. R, at 49.) On February 12, 2015, the Arizona Court of Appeals granted review, but denied relief:

Rojas contends the Supreme Court opinion in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), constitutes a significant change in the law that required the trial court to vacate his sentences of natural life. See Ariz. R. Crim. P. 32.1(g) (significant change in the law as a ground for post-conviction relief); 32.2(b) (rule of preclusion does not apply to claims for relief based on Rule 32.1(g)). In Miller, the Supreme Court held “that mandatory life [sentences] 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.'” 132 S.Ct. at 2460. The court further held that a trial court may sentence a juvenile offender convicted of murder to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole so long as the court takes into account “how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” Id. at 2469.
We assume arguendo that Miller is retroactive. Even so, we deny relief. Miller prohibits mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. Id. at 2460. Rojas's sentences to natural life were not mandatory. The trial court knew it had the option to sentence Rojas to natural life or life with a possibility of parole after twenty-five years' imprisonment. See Ariz. Rev. Stat. (“A.R.S.”) § 13-703(A) (1999). Further, in its determination of which sentence to impose, the trial court acknowledged Rojas's “miserable childhood, ” and found that his age at the time he committed the murders and his lack of prior felony convictions were mitigating factors. Therefore, the court took into account “how children are different” and Rojas's sentences to natural life complied with Miller.

(Doc. 12-3, Ex. T, at 102.)

         On July 1, 2015, the Arizona Supreme Court denied review. (Doc. 12-3, Ex. X, at 142.)

         III. PETITIONER'S HABEAS PETITION.

         On May 22, 2015, Petitioner filed a pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus. (Doc. 1.) Petitioner challenges his natural-life sentences, raising the following three grounds for relief:

1. His life sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, violate Article II of the Arizona Constitution, ...

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