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COA affirms life sentence for juvenile offender

September 6, 2017

After determining that a ban on mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders does not apply in situations in which the juvenile offender agreed to life without parole as part of a plea agreement, the Indiana Court of Appeals has affirmed a life sentence for one of only four Indiana juveniles ever to receive that sentence.

After his fellow gang member, Duane Turner, was kicked out of a party at Ball State University in 1994, 17-year-old Larry Newton decided to kill someone in retaliation. Newton and Turner then returned to the campus, found Christopher Coyle, a student they didn’t know, and forced him to get into a car belonging to Chad Wright, who was Newton and Turner’s friend.

Newton and Turner tried to rob Coyle, then took him to an alley where Newton fatally shot him in the back of the head. Coyle’s body was found in the alley later the same day, and Newton confessed to the murder a few days later.

Turner, who also shot Coyle, was charged and convicted of murder, among other convictions, and sentenced to life without parole. Newton was similarly charged with felony murder felonies criminal confinement, conspiracy to commit robbery resulting in bodily injury and attempted robbery resulting in bodily injury.

Pursuant to a plea agreement, Newton agreed to plead guilty to murder and be sentenced to life without parole in exchange for the state dismissing its request for the death penalty. The Delaware Circuit Court accepted that agreement in 1995.

Newton then sought post-conviction relief in 2001, and after that relief was denied, he filed in April 2007 a “Verified Petition for Permission to File a Belated Notice of Appeal” of the 1995 sentencing order. That petition was also denied, as was a subsequent appeal in December 2007.

Then in September 2013, Newton filed a successive petition for post-conviction relief on the grounds that his LWOP sentence had become unconstitutional under the “changed legal landscape regarding sentences of LWOP for juveniles.” Though his counsel offered evidence that Newton had “matured and shown moral growth” in prison, the trial court denied his successive petition.

On appeal in Larry W. Newton, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 18A05-1612-PC-2817, the state argued Newton waived his right to challenge the constitutionality of an LWOP sentence by voluntarily entering a plea agreement that called for that sentence. Newton, however, claimed he could not have waived that right because it was “unknown or unavailable to him at the time he pled guilty.” Newton pointed to subsequent case law that made the death penalty an illegal sentence for juvenile offenders, so he did not receive a benefit from his plea bargain.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals rejected that argument, with Judge Melissa May writing in a Wednesday opinion that under Fowler v. State, 977 N.E.2d 464, 468 (Ind. Ct. App. 2012), a petitioner receives the benefit of a plea agreement at the time the agreement was entered and cannot challenge their sentence later under new case law that makes the sentence illegal. However, waiver notwithstanding, the appellate court chose to address the merits of Newton’s case “given the important interests at stake.”

Among those interests was Newton’s claim his LWOP sentence violates Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment under the recent decisions in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 469, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2463 (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 733 (2016). Miller held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional, while Montgomery made that rule retroactive.

But the appellate court determined those cases are not applicable to narrow circumstances, such as Newton’s, where the juvenile defendant agreed to an LWOP sentence pursuant to a plea agreement. And even if Miller and Montgomery did apply, May said Newton still could not prove an Eighth Amendment violation because the trial court thoroughly considered the evidence before accepting the plea agreement, as is required under those cases.

“We note the U.S. Supreme Court was reluctant to impose a strict procedural requirement on counts in sentencing, such as requiring trial courts ‘to make a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility,’” May wrote. “Nevertheless, because the trial court did in fact explicitly make those determinations here, we hold Newton’s sentence was safeguarded against any possibility it violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.”

Finally, May noted in a footnote that Newton also raised ineffective assistance of counsel and Sixth Amendment claims, but said those claims were procedurally barred.

 

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