Juveniles and De Facto Life Sentences

This was an appeal out of Venango County. This appeal is one of many in a line of cases—both in federal and state courts—that have addressed sentencing of juveniles.

The holding of this case was particularly significant, and the reason why is because the Superior Court took the unusual step to go further than the federal and state supreme courts have been inclined to go in their rulings on juvenile sentencing.  While the federal and state supreme courts have only gone so far, recently, to say that it is unconstitutional to impose life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences upon juveniles convicted of murder, the Superior Court held that “a fixed term-of-years sentence can constitute a de facto LWOP sentence” and, therefore, violate the Eight Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Superior Court arrived at this holding after engaging in a lengthy historical analysis of the evolving precedents in this area of juvenile sentencing over the past couple of decades.  The Court wrote,

[W]e note that this holding is consistent with the tide of decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States regarding juvenile sentencing. [F]or the past several decades the Court has dramatically shifted our nation’s jurisprudence in this area. . . . Thus, the clear trend is to limit the maximum penalty to which juvenile offenders are exposed.  Finding de facto LWOP sentences unconstitutional . . . is consistent with this trend.

The Superior Court felt comfortable that it could take this extra step because, as it said, “both our Supreme Court and this Court faithfully execute the United States Supreme Court’s decisions—including the logical inferences thereof.”

So, that being the case, the Superior Court held that “a trial court may not impose a term-of-years sentence on a juvenile convicted of homicide if that term-of-years sentence equates to a de facto LWOP sentence unless it finds, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile is incapable of rehabilitation.”  However, that was not the end of the Superior Court’s analysis.  This case was unique in that the Court had to address the question about the constitutionality and effect of “aggregating” sentences, which can combine to create a de facto life sentence.

Here, Foust had originally been sentenced in the 1990s to two LWOP sentences for the shooting deaths of two people.  These sentences were run back-to-back, or consecutive.  When the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory LWOP sentences were illegal when applied to juveniles, Foust was resentenced, but he was resentenced to 30-years to life for each killing.  The sentencing court, again, ran both of these sentences consecutive to one another for an aggregate term of imprisonment of 60 years to life—a de facto LWOP sentence, Foust argued.

Ultimately, on this point, the Superior Court disagreed.  The Superior Court held that “in determining whether a fixed term-of-years sentence is a de facto LWOP sentence, we must consider the sentence for each individual crime separately and not the aggregate sentence imposed by the trial court.”  The Superior Court reiterated, as it has in the past, that the imposition of consecutive sentences is left to the discretion of the trial court, and a person convicted of multiple crimes is not entitled to a “volume discount” on their aggregate sentence.  Thus, under the facts of this case, the Superior Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in imposing the sentence that it did.  Moreover, the Court held that a sentence of 30-years to life “is not a de facto LWOP sentence for a juvenile offender.”  While the Superior Court would not “draw a bright line . . . delineating what constitutes a de facto LWOP sentence and what constitutes a constitutional term-of-years sentence,” the Superior Court was sure to remind trial courts it “will not hesitate to vacate” a sentence that attempts circumvention of the LWOP prohibition by imposing a lengthy term-of-years sentence. It wrote in a concluding footnote the following:

[W]e caution trial courts that they cannot circumvent the prohibition against sentencing juvenile homicide offenders capable of rehabilitation or juvenile nonhomicide offenders to LWOP by imposing consecutive, lengthy term-of-years sentences.  Although such sentences may be constitutional, they are still subject to discretionary aspects review by this Court, which will not hesitate to vacate a sentence that attempts such circumvention.  Trial courts must seriously contemplate the decision to impose lengthy term-of-years sentences and to run those sentences consecutively, instead of concurrently.  If a trial court determines that the facts in a particular case warrant consecutive sentences, it should detail, on the record, why consecutive sentences are appropriate.