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Flowers v. Roy

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

May 1, 2014

Brian Lee Flowers, Petitioner,
v.
Tom Roy, Commissioner of Corrections, Respondent.

ORDER

JOAN N. ERICKSEN, District Judge.

Petitioner Brian Lee Flowers is a Minnesota state prisoner who was convicted by a jury of the 2008 murders of Katricia Daniels and her 10-year old son, Robert Shepard. Flowers, who was 16 years old at the time of the murders, was sentenced by the Minnesota state court to consecutive, mandatory terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of release.

After Flowers' appeal was denied and his conviction and sentence had become final, the Supreme Court announced in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012) that the mandatory imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on a juvenile violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Flowers subsequently filed with this Court a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, arguing that Miller applies retroactively to his case and seeking re-sentencing by the Minnesota state trial court. ECF No. 1. The state Respondent responded in opposition to the petition. ECF Nos. 7, 8. The matter is now before the Court on a Report and Recommendation in which the United States Magistrate Judge recommends that Flowers' petition be denied. ECF No. 17. Flowers timely objected. ECF No. 18.

The Court declines to adopt the Report and Recommendation. For the reasons discussed below, the petition is granted.

Background

Following the killings of Daniels and Shepard in their Minneapolis home in 2008, 16year old Flowers and 17-year old Stafon Thompson were both indicted by the Hennepin County Grand Jury on two counts of first-degree premeditated murder and two counts of first-degree murder while committing or attempting to commit aggravated robbery. State v. Flowers, 788 N.W.2d 120, 124 (Minn. 2010); State v. Thompson, 788 N.W.2d 485, 488 (Minn. 2010). Flowers was charged alternatively as a principal and under an aiding and abetting theory. Flowers, 788 N.W.2d at 124.

In Minnesota, juveniles 16 years of age and older who are accused of first-degree murder are automatically prosecuted as adults. Minn. Stat. §§ 260B.007, subd. 6(b), 260B.101, subd. 2. Flowers and Thompson were tried separately in Hennepin County District Court. At the conclusion of Flowers' trial in 2009, the jury convicted him on all four counts of first-degree murder, as well as on two counts of the lesser-included offense of second-degree intentional murder. Flowers, 788 N.W.2d at 128. As a Minnesota statute required the trial court to impose a sentence of "life imprisonment without the possibility of release" on any offender convicted of first-degree premeditated murder, Minn. Stat. § 609.106, subd. 2(a), Flowers was accordingly sentenced to two consecutive terms of life without parole.[1]

Flowers appealed directly to the Minnesota Supreme Court. See Minn. Stat. § 632.14. There, Flowers challenged his conviction on three grounds, but made no argument regarding the constitutionality of his sentence. Flowers, 788 N.W.2d at 122. The Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and affirmed his conviction in 2010. Id. at 134. Flowers then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. Flowers v. Minnesota, 131 S.Ct. 2460 (2011) (mem.). The Supreme Court denied the petition, and Flowers' conviction and sentence therefore became final, in May of 2011. Id.

In June of 2012, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Miller v. Alabama , in which it holds that "mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.'" 132 S.Ct. at 2460. Under Miller, "a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders" is unconstitutional because, "[b]y making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment." Id. at 2469.

As a result, while Miller "does not categorically bar" imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on a juvenile homicide offender, it does mandate that the sentencer, whether judge or jury, have the discretion to impose a lesser sentence, such as "a lifetime prison term with the possibility of parole or a lengthy term of years." Id. at 2471, 2474. Further, Miller requires that the sentencer's exercise of its discretion be guided by an "individualized consideration" of the offender's "age and age-related characteristics and the nature of [his] crime...." Id. at 2469-70. Relevant issues for the sentencer's consideration could include: the offender's "chronological age and its hallmark features - among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences"; "the family and home environment that surrounds him"; "the 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"; the "incompetencies associated with youth, " such as "his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys"; and "the possibility of rehabilitation." Id. at 2468. The Supreme Court expressed the expectation that, given "children's diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, " granting the sentencer the discretion to determine a proportionate punishment and requiring him or her to take these and related matters into account in doing so will make "appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to th[e] harshest possible penalty uncommon." Id. at 2469.

Miller thus renders Minnesota's statutory scheme mandating a sentence of "life imprisonment without the possibility of release" for all offenders convicted of first degree premeditated murder unconstitutional as applied to juvenile offenders. See Chambers v. State, 831 N.W.2d 311, 323 (Minn. 2013) (acknowledging the same). What has been less clear, though, is whether Miller is of any benefit to juvenile homicide offenders like Flowers who, at the time Miller was issued in June 2012, had exhausted their direct appeals and were already serving mandatory terms of life without parole in Minnesota and other jurisdictions. That question has split federal and state courts across the country.

The Eighth Circuit has not yet addressed the question of Miller retroactivity.[2] But the Minnesota Supreme Court has, determining in May of 2013 in Chambers v. State that Miller does not apply retroactively so as to entitle a juvenile homicide offender whose statutorilymandated sentence of life without parole was already final when Miller was announced to relief in state postconviction proceedings. 831 N.W.2d at 331.

In June of 2013, less than a month after the Chambers decision and days shy of the one-year anniversary of Miller, Flowers filed his petition for a writ of habeas corpus here under 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

Discussion

Twenty-eight U.S.C. § 2254 provides a mechanism for "a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court" to seek relief in the federal courts "on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Flowers' petition asserts that he is in state custody in violation of the Constitution because the mandatory sentence of life without parole imposed on him by the Minnesota state court violates the Eighth Amendment. As a remedy for this constitutional violation, Flowers does not argue that his conviction should be vacated or that he should be released; rather, he seeks re-sentencing in the Hennepin County District Court in accordance with the discretionary sentencing process outlined in Miller.

Since Flowers' conviction and sentence have been final for nearly three years, his entitlement to this relief here turns on two questions: (1) whether Miller applies retroactively; and (2) whether his petition ...


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