Wyoming Supreme Court Finds Miller v. Alabama Is Retroactive


Three days after the United States Supreme Court let stand the Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision retroactively applying the constitutional ban on automatic life-without-parole sentences for children, the Wyoming Supreme Court followed suit and held the decision is retroactive.

Since the United States Supreme Court struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders in Miller v. Alabama in 2012, most state courts have held that the decision applies to people already serving the banned sentence. Wyoming’s highest court now joins the supreme courts of Nebraska, New Hampshire, Illinois, Mississippi, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Texas, as well as federal courts across the country, in recognizing that Miller is fully retroactive.

In State v. Mares, the court determined that Edwin Mares’s sentence to die in prison for felony murder as a juvenile was changed to a sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 25 years when Wyoming amended its parole statutes last year. The court nonetheless addressed retroactivity for the sake of judicial economy and to avoid conflicting rulings in the lower courts where other cases are pending.

Using the analysis set out in Teague v. Lane, the Wyoming Supreme Court evaluated whether the new rule announced in Miller is substantive, so that it would apply retroactively to existing cases, or procedural, which would apply only to new cases.
The court observed that Miller “certainly has a procedural component” but found that it is a substantive rule because it “has effected a substantive change in the sentencing statutes applicable to juvenile offenders.”

Although Miller does not impose a “categorical bar,” the court found, it “does however ban a sentence of mandatory life without parole and it substantively changes the conditions under which a sentence of life without parole may be imposed.” The court therefore concluded that the substantive new rule announced in Miller applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.