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Ealy v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

November 5, 2019


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/18/2017





         EN BANC.

          GREENLEE, J.

         ¶1. In 2006, Eugene Ealy pled guilty to murder for his participation in a shooting that occurred when Ealy was sixteen years old. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without eligibility for parole (life without parole), which was the only available statutory sentence. After the United States Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, the circuit court vacated Ealy's sentence, held a sentencing hearing as mandated by Miller, and resentenced Ealy to life without parole. Ealy appeals. We find no error and affirm.


         ¶2. On October 26, 2004, sixteen-year-old Ealy and two friends-brothers, fifteen-year- old Dunta Dotson and thirteen-year-old Robert Dotson-drove a stolen truck from Jackson, Mississippi, to Madison County, Mississippi, with the intent to steal a four-wheeler for Ealy. Ealy and Dunta had already stolen a four-wheeler for Dunta and determined Ealy needed one as well. Ealy and Dunta had surveyed several neighborhoods and decided earlier that day that they would steal a specific four-wheeler that they had noticed in the back of a truck parked at a home. They also observed a white Cadillac in the driveway. Ealy and Dunta recruited Robert as a third driver before returning to the home.

         ¶3. When they arrived back at the home, they parked, and Ealy and Dunta knocked on the door. Both were armed with .38-caliber pistols. Robert Jeanes came to the door, and Ealy asked Jeanes if he could use his phone. Jeanes obliged. Ealy and Dunta engaged in small talk with Jeanes and then returned to their car, where they discussed their next move. According to Dunta, Ealy said, "[W]e should rob him but then again a dead man can't talk." Ealy and Dunta also told Robert that he would have to drive.

         ¶4. Ealy and Dunta exited the stolen truck again and knocked on Jeanes's door. Ealy again asked to borrow Jeanes's phone, and Jeanes obliged. But this time, Ealy handed the phone back to Jeanes, and Dunta shot Jeanes in the head. With Jeanes's body in the doorway, Ealy and Dunta entered the home and stole firearms, a television, and other electronics. They retrieved the keys for both of Jeanes's vehicles from inside the home. Ealy then drove Jeanes's truck with the four-wheeler in the back, and Dunta drove Jeanes's Cadillac back to Jackson. Robert drove the stolen truck they had arrived in, but after Robert wrecked into a ditch, they abandoned the stolen truck; Robert then rode back with Ealy. Police found Jeanes's white Cadillac parked across the street from Ealy's father's home in Jackson.

         ¶5. Ealy agreed to talk to an investigator, waived his Miranda[1] rights, and confessed to his participation in the crime. He led police to Jeanes's four-wheeler, which was at a nearby home. The four-wheeler had been painted and labeled with Ealy's nickname. Ealy also told police that the stolen firearms were at Dunta and Robert's house. The firearms were found under Dunta's bed in Dunta and Robert's bedroom. Police also found a .38-caliber pistol on a dresser.

         ¶6. A Madison County grand jury indicted Ealy for capital murder under Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-3-19(2)(e) (Rev. 2004). On July 12, 2006, Ealy pled guilty to murder as a lesser-included offense of capital murder under Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-3-21 (Rev. 2004). As a factual basis for his plea, Ealy admitted under oath that "D[u]nta shot and killed Robert Jeanes while [Dunta] and [Ealy] were engaged in armed robbery of [Jeanes]." The Madison County Circuit Court sentenced Ealy to serve life in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) without eligibility for parole. This was the only possible sentence the court could impose because section 97-3-21 required, and still requires, a life sentence for murder, and Mississippi Code Annotated section 47-7-3(1)(f) (Rev. 2004) precluded parole eligibility for those convicted of violent crimes between June 30, 1995, and July 1, 2014.

         ¶7. In 2013, Ealy filed a motion for post-conviction relief, seeking to vacate his sentence based on the United States Supreme Court's decision in Miller. The motion was granted, and the Madison County Circuit Court vacated Ealy's sentence for resentencing under Miller and Parker v. State, 119 So.3d 987 (Miss. 2013) (applying Miller).

         ¶8. Before the resentencing hearing, Ealy filed several motions, including a motion for mental evaluation and treatment. The circuit court granted the motion so that psychologist Dr. Criss Lott could address the presence of mitigating factors for sentencing. Ealy also filed a motion for jury sentencing, which the circuit court denied.

         ¶9. In May 2017, the court conducted the Miller sentencing hearing. It heard testimony from Investigator Kelly Edgar, Dr. Lott, Kenneth Jeanes, and Michael Jeanes. Investigator Edgar was employed at the Madison County Sheriff's Department at the time of Jeanes's murder, and he testified about the investigation. Dr. Lott-the court-appointed psychologist-interviewed Ealy and some of Ealy's family members before the hearing, and he testified about his findings. Jeanes's family members, Kenneth and Michael, gave victim-impact statements. Ealy also testified, apologizing and stating: "I understand what I didn't understand back then. I was young in mind, not just young of age, and with age will come maturity, and I feel like I've elevated myself to that maturity. . . ." He further described his incarceration: "The only thing I knew was to protect myself, do what I had to do to survive. Okay. I did that. Over the years I have changed." At the conclusion of the hearing, the court took the matter under advisement so it could consider the "voluminous records" provided at the hearing.

         ¶10. In September 2017, the circuit court reconvened the parties and resentenced Ealy to life without parole. The court made oral findings on each Miller factor: (1) "chronological age and its hallmark features-among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences"; (2) "family and home environment that surrounds [the defendant]"; (3) "circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him"; (4) "that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth"; and (5) "the possibility of rehabilitation." Miller, 567 U.S. at 477-78.

         1. Age and Its Hallmark Features

         ¶11. Ealy was sixteen years and two months old at the time of the crime-the oldest of the three boys involved in the crime. Dr. Lott testified that Ealy's IQ of 83 was in the average to low-average range. The court noted Dr. Lott's testimony that Ealy exhibited "the hallmark features . . . of . . . youthful offenders, such as: [p]oor decision-making, not thinking about the future, giving into peer pressure, risk-taking, impulsivity, and self-control." Dr. Lott opined that Ealy's age made him more likely to act irrationally and impulsively. As to the crime itself, while Dr. Lott recognized that Ealy had engaged in preparations to commit a crime, he believed that the ultimate act was "careless and haphazard."

         ¶12. The court noted that despite Dr. Lott's opinion that the murder was an impetuous act, the evidence showed that the crime was "a planned action over a period of hours, if not multiple days, with the crime spree that was going on." The court found the offense was not "spur of the moment" or "haphazard." Rather, Ealy and Dunta had been stealing trucks for multiple days for the purpose of using those trucks to steal four-wheelers. They scoped out Jeanes's house and picked up Robert so they would have enough drivers to steal the two vehicles parked in Jeanes's driveway. Ealy and Dunta each carried handguns, and the court noted that there was evidence that Ealy had provided the handguns. Further, the court found there were multiple opportunities for Ealy to abandon the crime, but Ealy chose not to. The court found that when they arrived at Jeanes's house and realized someone was home, they could have left, but instead, according to Dunta, Ealy instructed that they should keep walking and "play it off"-asking Jeanes for his phone and pretending they were lost. Further, both Dunta and Robert stated that after Ealy borrowed Jeanes's phone the first time, Ealy handed it back, and he and Dunta returned to the vehicle they had arrived in. He and Dunta then had a conversation about the crime-at which time they could have left-but instead went back to Jeanes's door and asked to borrow his phone again, and then Dunta shot him.

         ¶13. The court further found that the crime was not "a direct result of any peer pressure" associated with age; rather, "it appear[ed] to be more of a lack of respect for human life and for other people's property," which "would seem to be a motivator for these types of crimes regardless of the age . . . ." The court found that Ealy was "a leader or at least co-equal participant" in the crime. Thus, the court ultimately concluded that other than Ealy's age, "there appears to be little else in this area that would weigh in favor of a sentence of life with parole."

         2. Family and Home Environment

         ¶14. As to Ealy's family and home environment, Ealy was the seventh of eight children, and his parents divorced when he was two. He lived with his mother and had little contact with his father until age ten. His mother consistently worked one or two jobs. She reported that Ealy did well in elementary school but then developed behavioral problems after age ten when he went to live with his father, where he was "pretty much unsupervised," according to Dr. Lott's evaluation. He was suspended from school more than once for violent acts. There were reports of violence between Ealy's parents, and Dr. Lott found that the parental conflict as well as the lack of a male role model early in life increased Ealy's risk of delinquency and gang affiliation. Here, after considering the testimony, the court found that "certainly . . . Ealy did not have an ideal home environment or educational experience" and that "[t]his factor weigh[ed] slightly in favor of a sentence of life with parole."

         3. Circumstances of the Murder

         ¶15. The court found that although Ealy was not the actual killer, "the evidence presented show[ed] that Ealy was a leader and that [the murder] happened how Ealy expected it to happen and it happened after there had been plenty of time for Ealy and [Dunta] to abandon the crime." The court further found that Ealy demonstrated "a lack of respect for human life and for other people's property" and that this was "a predominant motivator" for the crime: Ealy and Dunta "wanted what they wanted no matter what they had to do to get it." The court concluded that "everything about this crime itself favors [a] life without parole sentence."

         4. Incompetencies of Youth

         ¶16. On the next Miller factor-"that [Ealy] might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth"-the court found that while Ealy was only sixteen years old, "nothing in this case . . . indicates that Ealy's conviction was a result of any incompetency associated with his youth." The court noted that Ealy "had two able attorneys representing him" who were able to negotiate a plea to murder, although Ealy was "clearly guilty of capital murder." The court found there was not "anything here that would say that Mr. Ealy's youth or unfamiliarity with the legal system had any impact on the outcome of this case."

         5. Possibility of Rehabilitation

         ¶17. Lastly, as to the possibility of rehabilitation, the court noted that it found Dr. Lott's report and testimony "most concerning" on this factor. Dr. Lott testified that it is impossible to predict if a youthful offender will reoffend. Dr. Lott presented several studies showing that the older an offender is when released, the less likely the person is to reoffend. Specifically, he testified that studies show that people released after age forty tend to have a low recidivism rate. Ealy was twenty-nine at the time of the resentencing hearing. Thus, according to Dr. Lott, he would be better able to determine later down the road whether Ealy could be rehabilitated. However, Dr. Lott concluded that because Ealy had an average-to-low-average intelligence, he saw no impediment to Ealy being rehabilitated. Dr. Lott further found that Ealy had shown signs of maturity while in prison, such as working toward his GED, no longer affiliating himself with a gang, and exhibiting less "severe" behavior over time.

         ¶18. The court considered Dr. Lott's testimony but ultimately concluded that "simply because there's no impediment [to rehabilitation] doesn't mean that he can be [rehabilitated] . . . ." In making this finding, the court considered the extensive evidence of Ealy's violent and disrespectful behavior in prison. According to the "Drill Down Detail Report" provided by the MDOC, between Ealy's booking in prison in July 2006 and ...

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