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Rojas v. Ryan

United States District Court, D. Arizona

April 17, 2018

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



         The Court has considered the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) (Doc. 40) prepared by United States Magistrate Judge John Z. Boyle in this matter, as well as Respondent's Objection (Doc. 41) and Petitioner's Response thereto (Doc. 42). Both the Objection and Response were timely filed. Upon de novo review, the Court will sustain Respondent's Objection to Section IV of the R&R and deny the Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254.[1]

         Petitioner is serving a life term without the possibility of parole as a result of his conviction for two counts of first degree murder. He also was sentenced to concurrent eighteen-year terms for conspiracy and armed robbery, which terms have now expired. He was fifteen years old in 1999 when he committed these offenses.

         At the sentencing hearing, the trial judge had before him the pre-sentence investigation report for the matter, which informed the judge that Petitioner was fifteen years old and in ninth grade at an alternative school at the time of the offenses; that he had a very difficult childhood including his father leaving when Petitioner was eight years old and that he went into a children's home when his mother began using drugs; that he had suffered abuse before being moved to the children's home and was a user of marijuana and methamphetamine at the time of the offenses; that he was spending a good deal of time with friends who were “negative influences” on him at the time of the offenses; and that he was under the care of a psychiatrist to address anger management issues and taking Welbutrin at the time of sentencing. (Doc. 26 at 2-3.) Additionally, the sentencing judge received and reviewed “extensive records from a California social services agency detailing Petitioner's personal background and dysfunctional family history” and a memorandum from a mitigation specialist containing the specialist's assessment of Petitioner based on an interview and review of his records. (Doc. 12 Ex. Q at 15.)

         Having reviewed that information, the judge made the following findings and observations at the sentencing hearing:

I heard the evidence in this case. [] This was a heinous crime. Mr. Fromme, you shot him three times. The last time he was still alive. And then as Ms. Hoppes ran away screaming, you shot her twice in the head. []
I did read all the papers, the documents from Orange County [social services agency report]. Yes, you had a miserable childhood, but, you know, there's a lot of people out there who have had worse childhoods than you and they don't go out and commit double homicide. It's unfortunate that your mother and your grandmother, that they're hurt by this, but the only person that you can blame for them being hurt is yourself for getting involved in this. []
I have considered the aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The mitigating circumstances being your age and no prior felony convictions. The aggravating circumstances being multiple perpetrators, the fact that it was done for pecuniary gain, the effect on the families. And also the manner of the killing, the terror. The witnesses testified to the screaming of Amy Hoppes as she tried to run away from you before you shot her.

(Doc. 12 Ex. U at 12-13.) Based on those findings the sentencing judge imposed the sentences of life without possibility of parole for the two murder charges.

         The issue before the Court is whether Petitioner's life sentences without possibility of parole violate the Supreme Court's subsequent holding in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012). In Miller, the Supreme Court held “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” 132 S.Ct. at 2469. While the Court in Miller made clear it did not preclude a sentencing judge from imposing a life sentence without parole in homicide cases, it would “require [the sentencing judge] to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” Id. The Supreme Court noted that it thought that “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon” in light of the difficulty “of distinguishing at this early age between ‘the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.'” Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted).

         The parties agree that Miller is retroactive in its application to Petitioner's case, and that Petitioner's “pure” Miller claim[2] is exhausted for purposes of AEDPA and therefore properly before this Court for resolution.

         The R&R grounded its recommendation for remand and resentencing on Miller's requirement that a sentencing judge's exercise in discretion be guided by an “individualized consideration” of the offender's “age and age-related characteristics, ” as well as the nature of his crime. (R&R, quoting Miller, 132 S.Ct. at 2469-70, 2475.) The R&R observes that

Miller requires a court to do more than consider a defendant's age. A judge must consider a defendant's “age and age related characteristics” [and] must also consider “how [children's] differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to life in prison.

         (R&R at 11, internal quotation omitted.) On this statement of the law and what is required the Court agrees. But the R&R then states that “the trial judge did not consider Petitioner's ‘age related ...

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