The United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit yesterday struck down a 155-year sentence imposed on EJI client Keighton Budder for nonhomicide crimes when he was 16 years old.
Keighton Budder was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in Oklahoma in 2010, less than two weeks before the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida barred life-without-parole sentences for children who did not commit homicide.
After Graham, his sentence was changed to three life-with-parole sentences plus 20 years, which required him to serve 131.75 years before becoming eligible for parole.
EJI appealed this new sentence, arguing that it is unconstitutional because it denies Keighton a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” The Oklahoma courts and a lower federal court denied relief.
Yesterday, the 10th Circuit agreed with EJI, holding that Graham bars “any sentence that would deny the offender a realistic opportunity for release in the offender’s lifetime.”
Like state high courts in California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, and Wyoming, the federal appeals court held that there is no difference between a lengthy term of years that “effectively denies the offender any material opportunity for parole” and a sentence labeled “life without parole.”
The Constitution’s protections do not depend upon a legislature’s semantic classifications. Limiting the Court’s holding by this linguistic distinction would allow states to subvert the requirements of the Constitution by merely sentencing their offenders to terms of 100 years instead of “life.” The Constitution’s protections are not so malleable.
The court likewise rejected Oklahoma’s argument that Graham does not apply to multiple nonhomicide offenses, holding that the categorical rule barring life-without-parole sentences “applies to all nonhomicide offenses, regardless of the number or severity of those offenses,” committed by any offender who was under 18 at the time of the offense.
Again, we must emphasize that states may not circumvent the strictures of the Constitution merely by altering the way they structure their charges or sentences. Just as they may not sentence juvenile nonhomicide offenders to 100 years instead of “life,” they may not take a single offense and slice it into multiple sub offenses in order to avoid Graham’s rule that juvenile offenders who do not commit homicide may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
The court concluded that Keighton Budder’s sentence violates the Eighth Amendment and granted federal habeas relief.