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Young v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

October 3, 2017

VINCENT YOUNG A/K/A VINCENT EDWARD YOUNG A/K/A VINCENT E. YOUNG APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 05/05/2016

         COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: UNION COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. JOHN KELLY LUTHER TRIAL JUDGE

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: VINCENT YOUNG (PRO SE)

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: JOSEPH SCOTT HEMLEBEN

         En Banc.

          FAIR, J.

         ¶1. In 1990, Vincent Young pled guilty to armed robbery. In exchange for joining the State's recommendation that he receive a life sentence, the prosecution dropped an aggravated assault count and agreed not to prosecute Young as a habitual offender on the armed robbery charge. The circuit court followed the agreed recommendation and sentenced Young to life imprisonment under Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-3-79.

         ¶2. Now, more than twenty-five years later, Young has filed a motion for post-conviction relief, claiming that his sentence was illegal because under the prevailing interpretation of the statute at the time of his offense, only a jury could sentence him to life imprisonment for armed robbery. The Mississippi Supreme Court recently abandoned that interpretation of the statute's operative language, holding that statutes which permit the trial court to sentence a defendant to "any term" of incarceration include life sentences. Bester v. State, 188 So.3d 526, 529-30 (¶¶7-10) (Miss. 2016). The circuit court dismissed Young's petition, finding it both time-barred and without merit under Bester. On appeal, Young acknowledges that his sentence is legal in light of Bester, but he contends that applying Bester's holding to him amounts to an ex post facto law. We find that Young waived his right to challenge his sentence by joining the State's recommendation. We also conclude that Young's sentence was legal under Bester and that Bester did not violate the Ex Post Facto Clauses of the Mississippi and United States Constitutions. We affirm the circuit court's dismissal of Young's PCR motion.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶3. The circuit court may summarily dismiss a PCR petition "[i]f it plainly appears from the face of the motion, any annexed exhibits and the prior proceedings in the case that the movant is not entitled to any relief[.]" Miss. Code Ann. § 99-39-11(2) (Rev. 2007). "On appeal, this Court will affirm the summary dismissal of a PCR [petition] if the petitioner has failed to demonstrate 'a claim procedurally alive substantially showing the denial of a state or federal right.'" Flowers v. State, 978 So.2d 1281, 1283 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting Young v. State, 731 So.2d 1120, 1122 (¶9) (Miss. 1999)). We review questions of law de novo. Johnson v. State, 962 So.2d 87, 89 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007).

         DISCUSSION

         ¶4. Young argues that his claim is not subject to the time-bar because his fundamental constitutional rights were violated by an illegal sentence. "[E]rrors affecting fundamental constitutional rights are excepted from the procedural bars of the [Uniform Post-Conviction Collateral Relief Act]." Rowland v. State, 42 So.3d 503, 506 (¶9) (Miss. 2010). But mere assertions of constitutional-rights violations do not suffice to overcome the procedural bar. Chandler v. State, 44 So.3d 442, 444 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). Rather, "there must at least appear to be some basis for the truth of the claim before the [procedural bar] will be waived." Id.

         ¶5. Young acknowledges that his sentence is legal today in light of Bester v. State, 188 So.3d 526, 529-30 (¶¶7-10) (Miss. 2016), where the Mississippi Supreme Court held that statutes that permit the trial court to sentence a defendant to "any term" include sentences of life imprisonment. Young argues, however, that at the time he was sentenced, the controlling precedent of the Mississippi Supreme Court held that only a jury could pronounce a life sentence for armed robbery. See, e.g., Stewart v. State, 372 So.2d 257, 258 (Miss. 1979).

         ¶6. First of all, it is apparent that Young has waived any right to challenge the sentence he received. Young voluntarily agreed to his life sentence as part of his plea bargain. The circuit court's order accepting Young's plea and imposing his sentence explained that the State "agreed to reduce that portion of the indictment charging [Young] as a habitual offender in return for the acceptance by [Young] of a sentence of life imprisonment, as a non-habitual, for the offense of [armed] robbery." The parties to the plea bargain even agreed that if Young's life sentence is ever set aside, the State's "agreement to reduce the habitual offender portion of the indictment will have been abrogated and the said habitual offender portion of the indictment will be restored . . . upon the request of the State." Young voluntarily accepted a life sentence with the possibility of parole[1] in order to avoid a life sentence without the possibility of parole as a violent habitual offender. And the circuit judge who accepted Young's plea found that it was "freely, voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently made."

         ¶7. In this Court's opinion in Bester, on materially indistinguishable facts, we held that the defendant waived any objection to the legality of his life sentence by voluntarily agreeing to the sentence as part of his plea bargain. Bester v. State, 188 So.3d 576 (Miss. Ct. App. 2014), aff'd on other grounds, 188 So.3d 526 (Miss. 2016). We reasoned that "Bester's sentence [was] not an illegal sentence, as life imprisonment is a sentence permitted as a lawful punishment for forcible rape, albeit when imposed by a jury." Id. at 578 (¶9). Therefore, there was "no public-policy concern that Bester received a sentence not authorized by statute." Id. We further reasoned that "[b]y pleading guilty and negotiating a 'mutually acceptable' plea agreement, Bester . . . waived his right to a trial by a jury of his peers, and also the right for the jury to impose his sentence." Id. at 580 (¶14). We held that Bester could not, years later, "trifle with the circuit court and effectively renege on his plea agreement after he freely and voluntarily waived his right to have a jury impaneled for his trial and sentencing." Id. at (¶15).

         ¶8. The supreme court affirmed on other grounds in Bester, but it did not disapprove of this Court's opinion. This Court's opinion remains good law, and its reasoning applies to the facts of this case. The record is clear that Young voluntarily agreed to a life sentence in order to avoid the risk of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. By doing so, he waived any right to jury sentencing or to claim that his sentence is "illegal."

         ¶9. Moreover, as the supreme court held in Bester, Young's sentence was legal.[2] Young himself concedes that Bester controls; he just disputes the constitutionality of its application to him. We shall address that issue in turn, but since this Court does not unanimously agree that Bester controls, we will explain our reasons for finding it to be controlling precedent in this case. The Mississippi Supreme Court held in Bester that the language of the statute, which provided that the court could sentence the defendant to "any term" in the state penitentiary, meant what it appeared to say - the court could sentence the defendant to any term, including life imprisonment, even if no jury had chosen that punishment. Bester v. State, 188 So.3d 526, 529-30 (¶¶7-10) (Miss. 2016). The problem, according to the separate opinion, is that Bester concerned the rape statute, while today's case concerns the armed robbery statute. The separate opinion reasons that even though the operative language of the armed robbery statute and the operative language of the rape statute are identical, this Court lacks the authority to apply the holding in Bester because the supreme court did not expressly overrule any of its prior decisions addressing the armed robbery statute.

         ¶10. We certainly agree with the separate opinion that this Court, as an intermediate appellate court, lacks the authority to overrule decisions of the Mississippi Supreme Court. Nor do we claim the authority to ignore precedent because this Court believes the supreme court would rule differently if it were to decide the case anew. We find Bester controlling because, although it only expressly overruled rape cases, the supreme court's former interpretation of the armed robbery statute was expressly derived from a rape case that was directly overruled by Bester. The holding in Bester was not premised on anything unique to the rape statute. Instead, the court spoke to the construction of specific statutory language - language that has direct application to today's case because it is also used in the armed robbery statute. The supreme court in Bester noted the "any term" language of the rape statute and held:

"Any term" includes life imprisonment. "Our law has long provided that the imposition of sentence following a criminal conviction is a matter within the discretion of the Circuit Court, subject only to statutory and constitutional limitations." Jackson v. State, 551 So.2d 132, 149 (Miss. 1989) (emphasis added). Bester's sentence violates neither. And "[s]o long as these are not offended, ...

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