Five months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder.
But since the Miller v. Alabama decision, Florida courts have struggled to apply the ruling — and two Miami-Dade cases may help settle key lingering legal questions.
Does the ruling apply to past cases? A Miami appeals court, ruling on a South Miami-Dade killer convicted in 2000, doesn’t think so. That decision, which affects at least 180 cases statewide, is likely bound for higher courts.
When a judge last month gave convicted killer Benito Santiago 60 years in prison — making him the first South Florida juvenile sentenced after Miller — prosecutors immediately vowed to appeal, saying the sentence was illegal.
The nation’s high court in Miller, and a companion case, struck down laws in 28 states that handed out mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for minors convicted of murders. The ruling, while hailed by civil rights activists, doesn’t mean Florida judges can’t still impose a life sentence for murder. But they now must at least consider a defendant’s age.
The opinion follows the high court’s 2010 decision in a Jacksonville case that ruled that sentencing minors to life without the possibility of parole in non-homicide cases constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” The reasoning: science has shown that youth’s brains are not fully developed, and they are susceptible to impulses and the influences of others.
The Supreme Court never explicitly said Miller should apply to past convictions for juveniles.
Florida has at least 180 defendants who could be eligible for new sentences under the Miller case, according to Barry University’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Defense Resource Center. At least 50 in Miami-Dade may be eligible, according to the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office. So far, none have been resentenced.
Within days of the Miller decision, defendants across the state began asking courts to get new sentencing hearings. Some prosecutors assumed the decision would be retroactive.
In Tallahassee, the Attorney General’s Office even agreed that “relief is appropriate” in the 2008 case of then 17-year-old Jose Gonzalez, who stabbed a man to death during a robbery, according to court documents.
In the case of Drewery Geter, he was 16 when he raped and slit the throat of nurse Helen Barker in front of her young son in 2000.
After the Miller decision, convicted killer Drewery Geter asked Miami-Dade’s Third District Court of Appeals to toss his murder sentence for raping and slitting the throat of nurse Helen Barker in front of her young son when Geter was 16 years old.
But the court in September ruled Geter couldn’t get a new sentence because judges considering youth during sentencing was merely “evolutionary” and a “procedural change.”
The court also ruled that applying Miller retroactively “would undoubtedly open the floodgates” of long-ago convicted killers seeking new sentences.
The effect: new judges and prosecutors would be unfamiliar with old cases, trial transcripts might have vanished and relatives of the dead would be forced to live through a new set of court hearings, the panel ruled.