Appellate Court vacates petitioner’s 70-year sentence as being a de facto life sentence, even though his sentence was day-for-day eligible

The appellant in People v. Thornton, 2019 IL App (1st) 170677, appealed the trial court’s decision dismissing his pro se petition for  post-conviction relief on grounds that he stated an arguable claim that his 70-year sentence, for a crime he committed as a juvenile, is an unconstitutional de facto life sentence and remand is necessary as the circuit court failed to properly admonish him, pursuant to People v. Shellstrom, 216 Ill. 2d 45, before re-characterizing his petition. The First District ultimately vacated his sentence and remanded the matter for a new sentencing hearing.

Altai Thornton entered an open guilty plea to four counts of first degree murder and one count of aggravated kidnapping, in exchange for an agreed sentencing cap of 60 years’ imprisonment. Id. at ¶ 2. At the sentencing hearing, the State presented evidence in aggravation of the Thornton’s involvement in a subsequent shooting and a victim impact statement. Id. at ¶ 4. In allocution, Thornton apologized, accepted responsibility for his actions, and asked for mercy. The circuit court noted that Thorton was “starting down the wrong path at an early, early age,” merged the aggravated the kidnapping count into the first degree murder count based on felony kidnapping, and sentenced him to four concurrent extended terms of 70 years DOC.

On direct appeal, Thornton’s sentence was reduced to concurrent terms of 60 years DOC. Id. at ¶ 5-6. The Illinois Supreme Court then instructed the court to vacate its  order and reconsider its judgment in light of the decision in People v. Jackson, 199 Ill. 2d 286. On remand, Thornton argued that the circuit court erred by entering convictions and imposing sentences on four counts of first degree murder when there was only one victim  and that and his 70-year sentence violated Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 US 466 (2000). Id. at ¶ 7.

Thornton then filed a pro se “Petition to Vacate Judgement”. In the petition, Thornton alleged that his indictment was void for failing to allege brutal and heinous conduct; his 70-year extended term sentence violated Apprendi; the extended-term sentencing statue, along with several others, were unconstitutional because they did not require the State to charge brutal and heinous conduct; the concurrent and consecutive sentencing statutes violated Apprendi and are void ab initio; and, both his trial and appellate counsel were ineffective.

In response, the State filed a motion to dismiss the petition. Id. at ¶ 8. Shortly thereafter, Thornton filed a pro se Motion to Recharacterize the Petition as a Post-Conviction Petition under the Act. The circuit court granted the motion. Id. at ¶ 9. Thornton then filed a motion for leave of court to file an amended post-conviction petition, in which he sought to add additional claims. Thornton, simultaneously, filed an amended post-conviction petition containing all of the claims raised initially, as well as two new allegations: 1) his extended term sentence violated his due process rights because it was based on facts not alleged in the indictment, and 2) his sentencing hearing violated the eighth amendment of the United States Constitution, pursuant to Miller v. Alabama, because the circuit court failed to properly consider his youth before determining his sentence. Id. at ¶ 10. The circuit court summarily dismissed the pro se petition as frivolous and patently without merit. Id. at ¶ 11. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Thornton argued that the circuit court erred in summarily dismissing his pro se petition because he raised an arguable claim that his 70-year sentence, imposed for a crime he committed while he was a juvenile, violated the eighth amendment. In the court’s de novo review of Thornton’s claims, the court held that, pursuant to rulings in Miller and People v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, a sentence exceeding 40 years was a de facto life sentence requiring the court to consider the defendant’s youth and attendant circumstances. Id. at ¶ 16.

Thornton had argued that he had pled an arguable claim in his petition, as the record reflected that the sentencing court did not take into consideration Thornton’s youthful characteristics. The State responded by arguing that Thornton would likely only be required to serve 35 years of his 70 year sentence (because of day-for-day credit), and thus the court should consider the sentence as such. Id. at ¶ 18. In response, appellant argued that his sentence was a de facto life sentence because: 1) there is no guarantee of day-for-day credit; and 2) even if he did receive such credit, it remains highly unlikely he will outlive his 35 year sentence, given the life expectancy of incarcerated black men. Id. at ¶ 19.

The court concluded that regardless of appellant’s eligibility for day-for-day credit, his extended term of 70 years’ imprisonment is a de facto life sentence that requires a sentencing court to consider his youth and attendant characteristics. Id. at ¶ 22. Further, the court concluded that the circuit court failed to consider such characteristics during the imposition of this sentence and thus, the sentence violates the eighth amendment. Id. at ¶ 22-26.

The sentence was vacated as unconstitutional and remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

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