The federal district court in Minnesota last week retroactively applied the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama and vacated the mandatory life-without-parole sentence imposed on Brian Flowers for an offense at age 16.
Brian Flowers and an older teen were charged in the killing of a woman and her son in 2008 and Brian was automatically prosecuted as an adult. He was convicted and received two mandatory, consecutive life-without-parole sentences in 2009. His direct appeal concluded in 2011, a year before the Supreme Court announced in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to automatically sentence a juvenile to die in prison.
In May 2013, the Minnesota Supreme Court refused to retroactively apply Miller to cases like Brian’s where the appeal was completed before the decision. So Brian Flowers filed a petition in federal court asking it to vacate his sentence. Ordinarily, he would have been required to file first in state court, but the federal court found (and the prosecutor agreed) that it would have been futile to do so in light of the state supreme court’s ruling in the other case.
Because no state court addressed Flowers’s Miller claim, the federal court reviewed it de novo and found that Miller is retroactive. First, it noted that the Supreme Court will not announce or apply a new rule in a collateral case unless it is retroactive, and in Jackson v. Hobbs – the companion case to Miller – the Court “announced a new constitutional rule in a habeas proceeding, applied it to the habeas petitioner who sought it, and granted him the same relief that Flowers seeks here.”
Second, even if Jackson were not dispositive, the rule in Miller is retroactive because it is a substantive rule that “puts juveniles as a class beyond the reach of criminal statutes [that] impose a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of release on all offenders convicted of certain types of homicide.” The decision “fundamentally and substantively alters criminal sentencing laws by expanding the range of sentencing options available for these juvenile offenders.”
Because Miller held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences like Brian Flowers’s violate the Eighth Amendment, and Miller applies retroactively, the federal court held that Mr. Flowers is entitled to relief and granted his habeas petition.