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Atkins v. Crowell

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

December 17, 2019

Howard Atkins, Petitioner-Appellant,
Georgia Crowell, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee at Memphis. No. 2:09-cv-02297-Sheryl H. Lipman, District Judge.

          ON BRIEF: Michael J. Stengel, MICHAEL J. STENGEL, P.C., Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellant. Michael M. Stahl, OFFICE OF THE TENNESSEE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

          Before: COLE, Chief Judge; SILER and MURPHY, Circuit Judges.


          MURPHY, Circuit Judge.

         A Tennessee jury convicted Howard Atkins of murdering his stepfather in 2000 when he was just 16 years old. A state court imposed a life sentence that (all now agree) renders Atkins eligible for release after at least 51 years' imprisonment. See Brown v. Jordan, 563 S.W.3d 196, 197, 200-02 (Tenn. 2018) (discussing Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35- 501(h)-(i)). His conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. State v. Atkins, No. W2001-02427-CCA-R3-CD, 2003 WL 21339263 (Tenn. Crim. App. May 16, 2003).

         Years later, the Supreme Court held that a sentence of "mandatory life 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.'" Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 465 (2012). (The Court concluded that Miller applies retroactively in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016).) Atkins sought to benefit from Miller in state post-conviction proceedings. He argued that the life sentence he received as a 16-year-old also qualified as a "cruel and unusual" punishment under the Eighth Amendment. A state appellate court rejected his claim. It distinguished Miller because, unlike the juveniles in that case, Atkins could be released after 51 years' imprisonment and so was "not serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole." Atkins then turned to the federal courts with his Eighth Amendment claim. The district court denied relief too, but issued a certificate of appealability for us to consider whether the state court reasonably distinguished Miller under the governing standards for federal habeas relief in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).

         Section 2254(d)(1) prohibits a federal habeas court from upending a state criminal judgment unless a state court's rejection of a constitutional claim was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." The Supreme Court has repeatedly reminded the circuit courts that this statutory test "is difficult to meet." White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. 415, 419 (2014) (citation omitted). The statute's "clearly established" language allows a court to grant relief based only on "the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme] Court's decisions." Id. (citation omitted).

         So we must start by identifying Miller's holding. At first glance, that task looks easy because Miller expressly (and repeatedly) stated its holding. The Court said at the outset: "[w]e therefore hold that mandatory life 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.'" Miller, 567 U.S. at 465. It later repeated the same message: "[w]e therefore hold that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders." Id. at 479. For good measure, the Court also described what it was not holding. Since the case involved state laws that made life without parole the mandatory sentence for the juvenile defendants, id. at 466-69, the Court did not need to decide whether the Eighth Amendment imposed a "categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles," id. at 479. It held only that the Eighth Amendment prohibits states from requiring an automatic life-without-parole sentence without giving sentencing courts discretion to consider a juvenile's youth when deciding whether to impose "that harshest prison sentence." Id. In other words, Miller did "not categorically bar a penalty for a class of offenders"; it "mandate[d] only that a sentencer follow a certain process-considering an offender's youth and attendant characteristics-before imposing" a life-without-parole sentence. Id. at 483.

         A later case complicates things. Despite Miller's disclaimers about its reach, the Court in Montgomery described the decision more broadly when concluding that "Miller announced a substantive rule that is retroactive in cases on collateral review." 136 S.Ct. at 732. According to Montgomery, Miller in fact "rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for 'a class of defendants because of their status'-that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth." Id. at 734 (citation omitted). "Miller did bar life without parole," Montgomery added, "for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility." Id. Montgomery thus found that "Miller drew a line between children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity and those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption." Id. Only the latter may receive a life-without-parole sentence. Id. The Court will soon decide whether Montgomery expanded Miller's holding (and whether any such expansion can be applied retroactively). See Mathena v. Malvo, 139 S.Ct. 1317 (2019) (granting certiorari).

         For our purposes, though, Miller's precise scope does not matter. Atkins cannot obtain relief under § 2254(d)(1) even if Miller more broadly prohibited life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who are not permanently incorrigible. Montgomery, 136 S.Ct. at 734. Either way, the state court's holding-that a chance for release after 51 years removes Atkins's sentence from Miller's orbit-was neither "contrary to" nor an "unreasonable application" of Miller. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).

         Start with the "contrary to" language. A state court's decision is "contrary to" a Supreme Court holding only if "the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in" the Supreme Court's decision, "or if it decides a case differently than [the] Court has done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)). The state court did nothing of the sort here. Whether read broadly or narrowly, Miller creates a legal rule about life-without-parole sentences. And, whether one looks at Atkins's sentence formally or functionally, he did not receive a life-without-parole sentence. He will be eligible for release after at least 51 years' imprisonment. See Brown, 563 S.W.3d at 197. Miller's holding simply does not cover a lengthy term of imprisonment that falls short of life without parole. See Starks v. Easterling, 659 Fed.Appx. 277, 280-81 (6th Cir. 2016); cf. Bunch v. Smith, 685 F.3d 546, 551 (6th Cir. 2012). Similarly, the facts of Atkins's case (the possibility of release after 51 years' imprisonment) materially distinguish it from the facts of Miller (no possibility of release). Cf. Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 74 & n.1 (2003).

         Nor was the state court's decision an "unreasonable application" of Miller. A state decision cannot have unreasonably applied a Supreme Court precedent if a habeas petitioner needs a federal court "to extend that precedent" to obtain relief. Woodall, 572 U.S. at 426. Atkins needs that type of extension here. He asks us to expand Miller's holding to cover life sentences that include a lengthy prison term before any potential release. "'Perhaps the logical next step from'" Miller would be to hold that a life sentence without any chance of parole for 51 years "does not satisfy the Eighth Amendment, but 'perhaps not.'" Virginia v. LeBlanc, 137 S.Ct. 1726, 1729 (2017) (per curiam) (citation omitted). After all, Miller reasoned that life-without-parole sentences are unique, noting that they "share some characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no other sentences." Miller, 567 U.S. at 474 (quoting Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 69 (2010)). The portion of Miller tailored to life-without-parole sentences shows that there is at least a "reasonable argument" that it applies only to those types of sentences. Demirdjian v. Gipson, 832 F.3d 1060, 1076 (9th Cir. 2016). That reasonable argument forecloses any claim that the state court acted unreasonably under § 2254(d)(1).

         All told, Miller emphasized the "without parole" component of its holding five times. See 567 U.S. at 465, 470, 477, 479, 489. A "limitation thus emphasized is one the state courts may honor, with relatively little fear of being found 'objectively unreasonable' for doing so." Mendoza v. Berghuis, 544 F.3d 650, 655 (6th Cir. 2008).

         Atkins resists this conclusion. According to him, Miller held that all juvenile sentences "must provide 'some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.'" Miller, 567 U.S. at 479 (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 75). This reading would dramatically expand Miller's scope and create significant uncertainty to boot. How many years may a sentence extend before juveniles must receive their first parole hearing? Atkins does not say. If Miller intended the broad reach that he proposes, we would have expected clear language to that effect along with guidance for lower courts on how to implement the Court's holding. But the language from Miller that Atkins highlights can be found only in a parenthetical immediately following a "Cf." citation to Graham (signaling a comparison). Id. Just as Congress does not "alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions," Whitman v. Am. Trucking ...

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