Appellate Court holds that petitioner’s 27-year sentence is not de facto life sentence
The appellant in People v. Johnson, 2019 IL App (2d) 170646, appealed the decision of the trial court denying his motion for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition. The Second District ultimately affirmed the judgment of the trial court.
Derron Johnson was found guilty of first degree murder, based on the theory that he was accountable for the conduct of another individual, Andrew Proctor, who committed the acts resulting in the victim’s death. Johnson was subsequently sentenced to 27 years’ imprisonment. On direct appeal, the appellate court affirmed the conviction and sentence. Id. at ¶ 3.
Johnson filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, followed by an amended petition six years later. The court dismissed the petition and the appellate court affirmed the dismissal. Johnson then filed a motion for leave to file a successive postconviction petition. Johnson argued that, considering his age at the time of the offense and his level of participation, his 27-year sentence violated the eighth amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the Illinois Constitution’s proportionate penalties clause. Id. at ¶ 4.
In support, Johnson cited Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), which held that sentencing a juvenile offender to mandatory life imprisonment without parole violated the eighth amendment. Johnson also raised an ineffective assistance of counsel claim for counsel’s failure to raise this issue in his first post-conviction petition. The trial court denied the motion for leave and determined that Johnson failed to show cause for not raising his Miller claim earlier when his amended petition was filed. The court also determined that Johnson failed to show prejudice, as Miller did not apply to his 27-year sentence, which was not a de facto life sentence. Id. at ¶ 5. This appeal followed.
On appeal, Johnson raised a new argument – that the truth-in-sentencing statute requiring him to serve his entire sentence without the possibility of parole violated the eighth amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the Illinois Constitution’s proportionate penalties clause. Id. at ¶ 7. Johnson argued that this provision of the Code was unconstitutional both facially and as applied. As to cause-and-prejudice, Johnson argued that he established cause because the new claim is a novel claim that was not available to him at the time of original filing and that he demonstrated prejudice because Miller applies retroactively.
The State argued, in response, that Johnson waived his challenge to the constitutionality of his sentence because, at sentencing, trial counsel acknowledged the legislatively imposed sentencing requirements and stated that he was “not arguing about [that].” Id. at ¶ 9. The State also asserted that the Johnson forfeited his argument by not raising the constitutionality of the truth-in-sentencing statute in his motion for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition. The court found these arguments presented by the state to be without merit. Id. at ¶ 9. The court declined to find the issues waived or forfeited and addressed the merits of the claims on appeal.
The Appellate Court found that courts have held that the truth-in-sentencing statute can be constitutionally applied under some circumstances, and thus, it was not facially unconstitutional. The as-applied challenge is premised on the decision in Miller, in which the Supreme Court held that, for those convicted of homicide, the eighth amendment prohibits a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. Id. at ¶ 11.
The Johnson court noted that numerous courts have rejected similar arguments as Johnson’s. Id. at ¶ 12. The court held “the 27-year sentence was not a de facto life sentence” and does not fall under the protections of Miller. Id. at ¶ 13. Further, the court found that, in accordance with Miller, the trial court had properly considered age, circumstances of family life growing up, appellant’s lack of criminal history, and Johnson’s culpability at sentencing. Id. at ¶ 14. As such, even if the court had held that Miller were applicable to Johnson’s case, no violation of Miller occurred.