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Wharton v. State

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

December 5, 2019

DARREN LEE WHARTON
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/24/2017

          HARRISON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. LAWRENCE PAUL BOURGEOIS, JR. TRIAL JUDGE.

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: SCOTT HAROLD LUSK MICHAEL W. CROSBY DAVID WRIGHT CLARK MICHAEL JAMES BENTLEY

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: MICHAEL W. CROSBY

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: LADONNA C. HOLLAND

          BEAM, JUSTICE.

         ¶1. Darren Lee Wharton was granted leave by this Court to the proceed in the Harrison County Circuit Court with a motion for post-conviction relief (PCR) based on Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718, 193 L.Ed.2d 599 (2016). The trial court vacated Wharton's life-without-parole sentence for capital murder and granted Wharton a Miller sentencing hearing. The trial court denied Wharton's request that a jury make the Miller determination, stating that "the sentencing authority is the trial court." Following the Miller hearing, the trial court resentenced Wharton to life in prison without parole.

         ¶2. The Court of Appeals reversed Wharton's sentence and remanded the case to the trial court, instructing that "Wharton's Miller resentencing should be decided by a jury, not the trial court, because Wharton was convicted and sentenced under [Mississippi Code Section] 99-19-101 that prescribes sentencing solely by a jury." Wharton v. State, No. 2017-CA-00441-COA, 2018 WL 4708220, at *1 (Miss. Ct. App. Oct. 2, 2018).

         ¶3. The State petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which we granted. We find that Wharton is not entitled to have a Miller resentencing hearing in front of a new jury because Section 99-19-101 was complied with at the original sentencing proceeding. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals' decision.

         ¶4. Further, although the Court of Appeals did not reach the question, we find no abuse of discretion in the trial court's decision not to resentence Wharton to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Accordingly, we reinstate and affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶5. Wharton was found guilty by a jury of capital murder in 1995 for the shooting death of Danny McCugh during the commission of a robbery. The crime occurred on July 17, 1994, when Wharton was seventeen years of age. Wharton, 2018 WL 4708220, at *1.

         ¶6. Following the trial's guilt phase, a sentencing hearing was conducted before the same jury that determined Wharton's guilt. The jury was presented aggravating and mitigating factors for its consideration, as required by Mississippi Code Section 99-19-101 (Rev. 2015). Afterwards, the jury was instructed to decide whether Wharton should be sentenced to "death, life imprisonment without parole, or life imprisonment." The jury decided that Wharton "should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole."

         ¶7. This Court affirmed Wharton's conviction and sentence on direct appeal. Wharton v. State, 734 So.2d 985 (Miss. 1998).

         ¶8. In September 2014, a panel of this Court granted Wharton leave to proceed in the Harrison County Circuit Court with a PCR motion based on Miller. As the Supreme Court later held in Montgomery, the Miller Court had held that "sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but 'the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.'" Montgomery, 136 S.Ct. at 734 (quoting Miller, 567 U.S. at 479-80).

         ¶9. Wharton claimed in his PCR motion that he was entitled to a Miller sentencing hearing before a jury based on the language of Section 99-19-101. The State responded that the trial judge, not a jury, was the appropriate authority in Miller sentencing proceedings.

         ¶10. The trial court agreed with the State. The trial court concluded that the reason for Mississippi's enactment of Section 99-19-101 was the death penalty and its constitutional application. Because the death penalty is no longer a sentencing option for juveniles, the trial court reasoned that the court acts as the sentencing authority on remand in Miller hearings.

         ¶11. The trial court then conducted a Miller sentencing hearing, during which it received evidence and testimony along with arguments from counsel for both parties. The trial court applied the Miller factors as interpreted and adopted by this Court in Parker v. State, 119 So.3d 987, 995 (Miss. 2013).[1] The trial court then determined that Wharton should be resentenced to life without parole.

         ¶12. Wharton appealed, and this Court assigned the case to the Court of Appeals. There, Wharton argued that he had a constitutional right to have a jury decide resentencing. Wharton, 2018 WL 4708220, at *4.

         ¶13. The Court of Appeals disagreed with Wharton that he had a "constitutional right" to have a jury undertake consideration of the Miller factors, noting that both Miller and Montgomery refute that argument. Wharton, 2018 WL 4708220, at *6 (citing Cook v. State, 242 So.3d 865, 876 (Miss. Ct. App. 2017)).

         ¶14. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed the trial court's ruling, holding that, "because Wharton was convicted of capital murder under [S]ection 99-19-101, and then sentenced by a jury as required under [S]ection 99-19-101, Wharton's Miller resentencing determination should be undertaken by a jury, not the trial judge." Wharton, 2018 WL 4708220, at *4 (footnote omitted).

         ¶15. The Court of Appeals reasoned that, "under [S]ection 99-19-101's sentencing scheme, the Legislature has vested sentencing authority in the jury, and that authority only allows a sentencing proceeding to be conducted before a trial judge without a jury if the right to a jury was waived or the defendant pleaded guilty . . . ." Id. (citing Miss. Code Ann. § 99-19-101). Thus, because Wharton neither pleaded guilty nor waived his right to a sentencing jury, Wharton was entitled by statute to have a jury undertake consideration of the Miller factors. ¶16. The State petitioned for a writ of certiorari, claiming that the Court of Appeals' decision is incorrect because Section 99-19-101 is a death-penalty statute. As such, the State argued, Section 99-19-101 does not apply in the Miller context because juveniles are not eligible for the death penalty.

         ¶17. Alternatively, the State acknowledges this Court's recent decision in Moore v. State, No. 2017-KA-00379-SCT, 2019 WL 4316161 (Miss. May 30, 2019), which held that juveniles convicted of capital murder have a statutory right under Section 99-19-101 to be initially sentenced by a jury. The State contends, however, that Moore should not be applied in the PCR context, since Moore distinguishes between initial Miller sentencing and Miller resentencing proceedings. And Wharton already received his statutory right to jury sentencing under Section 99-19-101 in 1995.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶18. As noted by the State, we recently held in Moore that the trial court erred by denying a request by a defendant convicted of capital murder post-Miller to be sentenced by a jury. Moore, 2019 WL 4316161, at *10. We construed Section 99-19-101(1) to "require[] all capital offenders-without exception-to be sentenced by a jury." Id. This Court based its interpretation on Section 99-19-101(1)'s language that, "[U]pon conviction or adjudication of guilt of a defendant of capital murder or other capital offense, the court shall conduct a separate sentencing proceeding . . . before the trial jury as soon as practicable." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Miss. Code Ann. § 99-19-101(1) (Rev. 2015)).

         ¶19. As the State also points out, Moore limited its holding, stating that "our holding today is limited to the facts of this case: a minor convicted of capital murder post-Miller who was denied sentencing by a jury." Id. What occurred in Moore was a statutory violation, not a constitutional violation; there, the trial court had denied Moore's request to have a jury determine his sentence under Section 99-19-101(1). As the Court of Appeals rightly concluded, Wharton has no constitutional right to have a jury decide the Miller factors. Wharton, 2018 WL 4708220, at *6.

         ¶20. Here, however, Wharton received a jury sentencing hearing as required by Section 99-19-101(1). Thus, unlike in Moore, there was no statutory violation in this instance. And while we find that Wharton is entitled to a Miller hearing, we do not find that he is entitled to a Miller hearing in front of a new jury.

         ¶21. Also, this Court granted only Wharton's request for leave to file a PCR motion. See Order, Wharton v. State, No. 2013-M-00905 (Miss. Sept. 4, 2014) ("[Wharton] asks us to vacate his life-without-parole sentence and remand the case for a new sentencing hearing or, alternatively, grant him leave to file a motion for post-conviction relief in the trial court."). The order did not grant Wharton's request to vacate his life-without-parole sentence. Id.

         ¶22. As will be explained, we hold that the trial court erred by vacating Wharton's original sentence. Again, neither Miller nor Montgomery mandate a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles. See Jones v. State, 122 So.3d 698, 702 (Miss. 2013) (speaking to Miller). Rather, the Supreme Court-guided by its "evolving standards of decency"[2]test-has concluded that mandatory life without parole for juveniles, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment for all but "the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption." Montgomery, 136 S.Ct. at 734.

         ¶23. This is a new substantive rule of constitutional law, required to be given retroactive effect by the states. Montgomery, 136 S.Ct. at 734; see also Jones, 122 So.3d at 701-02. (concluding the same before Montgomery was decided). "Where state collateral review proceedings permit prisoners to challenge the lawfulness of their confinement, States cannot refuse to give retroactive effect to a substantive constitutional right that determines the outcome of the challenge." Montgomery, 136 S.Ct. at 731-32.

         ¶24. The Supreme Court has left to the states the responsibility to determine how Miller is to be implemented in state-court proceedings and how to remedy a Miller violation or potential violation. Id. at 735-36. Montgomery reiterated that, "[w]hen a new substantive rule of constitutional law is established, this Court is careful to limit the scope of any attendant procedural requirement to avoid intruding more than necessary upon the States' sovereign administration of their criminal justice systems." Id. at 735 (citing Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 416-17, 106 S.Ct. 2595, 91 L.Ed.2d 335 (1986)). "Miller . . . does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole." Id. at 736. Rather, Miller requires

a procedure through which [an affected prisoner] can show that he belongs to the protected class. See, e.g., Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 317, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002) (requiring a procedure to determine whether a particular individual with an intellectual disability "falls within the range of intellectually disabled ...

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