IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
December 21, 2012
CHRISTIAN THOMAS, PETITIONER,
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, ET AL., RESPONDENTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rufe, J.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
On September 9, 2010, Petitioner Christian Thomas filed a petition
for habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, *fn1
seeking relief from state court sentences for rape,
indecent assault, and multiple counts of armed robbery and burglary
charged in seven separate criminal informations. The crimes were
committed during a crime spree when Thomas was fourteen and fifteen
years old. Thomas was prosecuted as an adult and sentenced to a total
of 65-to-150 years in prison, *fn2 with
eligibility for parole at age 83. *fn3
Thomas's pro se petition raised four grounds for relief: 1) his sentence violates the Eighth Amendment, under Graham v. Florida *fn4 ; 2) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to seek dismissal of certain charges pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 600 ("Rule 600"); 3) trial counsel was ineffective for permitting Thomas to enter unknowing and involuntary guilty pleas; and 4) the trial court imposed a sentence longer than that required by the state sentencing guidelines, and imposed consecutive rather than concurrent sentences without adequate justification. The petition was referred to Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice for a Report and Recommendation ("R&R"), pursuant to the Court's Local Rule 72.1. The Sentence Imposed Violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution Before issuing his R&R, Magistrate Judge Rice appointed counsel to brief the Eighth Amendment issue on Thomas's behalf, and both parties filed supplemental briefs examining the applicability of Graham to Thomas's sentence. On June 4, 2012, after briefing was completed, Magistrate Judge Rice held oral argument. At that oral argument, Respondents, apparently acknowledging that the Supreme Court's decision in Graham may apply to term-of-year sentences which are effectively life-sentences, informed Magistrate Judge Rice that they agreed that Thomas's sentence should be vacated and the matter remanded to the state trial court for resentencing pursuant to Graham. *fn5 Accordingly, on June 5, 2012, Magistrate Judge Rice issued the R&R recommending that Thomas's petition be granted and the matter remanded for resentencing consistent with Graham.
Neither party has objected to this recommendation for resentencing, and the Court agrees that the sentences should be vacated and the cases remanded to the state court for resentencing consistent with Graham.
In Graham, the Supreme Court addressed a categorical challenge to
the imposition of life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders
convicted of crimes other than homicide. *fn6
The Supreme Court noted the infrequency with which life sentences are
actually imposed on juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicides, even
in jurisdictions where such sentences are permitted by law, and
concluded that a national consensus has developed against such
sentences. *fn7 The Supreme Court also found
that juveniles have diminished moral culpability, citing psychological
and neurological research showing substantial differences between
juvenile and adult minds and, in particular, differences in the parts
of the brain responsible for behavioral control. *fn8
The Supreme Court noted that it is difficult, even for
experts, to differentiate juveniles whose crimes reflect "transient
immaturity" from those whose crimes reflect "irreparable corruption,"
and concluded that a "life without parole sentence improperly denies
the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity" and
"forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal" despite juveniles'
increased receptivity to rehabilitation. *fn9
In addressing the penological justifications, the
Supreme Court held that "[w]ith respect to life without parole for
juvenile non-homicide offenders, none of the goals of penal sanctions
that have been recognized as legitimate-retribution, deterrence,
incapacitation, and rehabilitation-provides an adequate
justification." *fn10 Thus, the Supreme Court
held that the Eighth Amendment categorically
prohibits sentencing individuals who were under 18 years of age at
the time of the offense, and who were convicted of non-homicide crimes,
to life in prison without parole. *fn11
Most relevant to Thomas's case, in which the state court did not impose a life sentence without parole, but rather a term-of-years sentence under which Thomas is not eligible for parole until age 83 (an age more than a decade beyond his life expectancy), the Supreme Court in Graham held that the states must give juvenile defendants "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." *fn12 Other courts faced with facts similar to the facts in this case have concluded that a sentence imposed upon a non-homicide juvenile offender is unconstitutional under Graham if it provides no meaningful opportunity for parole during the offender's lifetime, even if that sentence is a term-of-years sentence and not a formal life without parole sentence, and this Court agrees with that position. *fn13
This Court does not believe that the Supreme Court's analysis would change simply because a sentence is labeled a term-of-years sentence rather than a life sentence if that term-of-years sentence does not provide a meaningful opportunity for parole in a juvenile's lifetime. The Court's concerns about juvenile culpability and inadequate penological justification apply equally in both situations, and there is no basis to distinguish sentences based on their label. To find otherwise would degrade the holding of the Supreme Court. Therefore, this Court finds that the sentence imposed in this case, though a term-of-years sentence, violates Graham as it provides no meaningful opportunity to obtain release, based upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation, during Thomas's expected lifetime. Accordingly, the Court finds that the sentence imposed amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Trial Counsel Was Not Ineffective for Failure to File a Rule 600
Motion to Dismiss In addition to the Graham issue, Thomas's petition
raised three other grounds for relief. Magistrate Judge Rice rejected
each of these three grounds as non-cognizable or meritless in his
thorough and well-reasoned R&R. Where a habeas petition, such as the
one in this case, is referred to a magistrate judge for an R&R
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), a district court judge conducts a
de novo review "of those portions of the report or
specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is
made" and "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the
findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge."
*fn14 Thomas requested appointment of counsel to
assist him in filing objections, which the Court granted,
*fn15 and counsel
filed an objection to one claim Judge Rice had found meritless.
For the reasons set forth below, the Court overrules Thomas's single
objection to the R&R.
Thomas "objects to the R&R's conclusion that the Pennsylvania Superior Court was not unreasonable in its application of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), when it ruled that Mr. Thomas's trial counsel was not ineffective for failing to file a Rule 600 motion." *fn16
Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 600 ("Rule 600") requires state criminal trials to be held within 365 days from the date the complaint is filed, subject to tolling and excludable time. *fn17
Plaintiff argues that four of the seven criminal informations which were the subject of his second, June 3, 2003, guilty pleas were not timely prosecuted pursuant to Rule 600, and that his counsel was ineffective for failing to file a motion to dismiss certain charges against him on that basis prior to the entry of his June 3, 2003 guilty pleas. *fn18 Plaintiff raised this Rule 600 argument in a PCRA petition, and the PCRA court rejected it. Thomas appealed to the Superior Court, which found that Thomas's June 3, 2003 guilty plea hearing was timely under Rule 600 with regard to two of the informations (charging four counts of robbery, one count of burglary, and one count of rape). However, the Superior Court acknowledged that the June 3, 2003 guilty plea hearing was outside the Rule 600 time period on the remaining five criminal bills of information. Nevertheless, the Superior Court held that because those five bills of information were consolidated *fn19 with the two that were timely prosecuted, there was no Rule 600 violation. *fn20 In its ruling, the Superior Court relied upon its decision in Commonwealth v. Selenski, *fn21 which held that when charges are consolidated, formally or informally, the tolling attributable to any charge also tolls all related charges. Having found no Rule 600 violation in Thomas's case, the Superior Court concluded that trial counsel was not ineffective for failing to raise the meritless issue before the trial court.
Thomas appealed the Superior Court's ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reserved ruling on Thomas's petition pending its ruling in Selenski, which had also been appealed. Once it had affirmed the Superior Court's ruling in Selenski, *fn22 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Thomas's petition for review.
In his habeas Petition to this Court, Thomas argues that the Superior Court misinterpreted Rule 600 in his case, wrongly found that all seven criminal informations against him were timely prosecuted, and, based on this error, failed to find that counsel was ineffective for failing to file a Rule 600 dismissal motion on the informations which were not timely prosecuted.
A federal court may not grant habeas relief if the claims were
"adjudicated on the merits in state court" unless the state court
decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable
application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by
the Supreme Court of the United States" or "was based on an
unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence
presented in the State court proceeding." *fn23
Thus, in reviewing the ruling of the Pennsylvania
Superior Court, this Court must apply a deferential standard of
For the reasons set forth in the R&R, the Court cannot find that
the Superior Court was unreasonable in denying Thomas's ineffective
assistance of counsel claim under Strickland's deferential standard.
The Court adopts the well-reasoned analysis set forth in the R&R on
this issue, and agrees that Thomas has failed to show that the
Superior Court's ruling "was so lacking in justification that there
was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond
any possibility for fairminded disagreement." *fn25
Furthermore, this Court agrees with the R&R's conclusion,
that "even if the Superior Court misapplied or failed to follow Rule
600, [this Court] may not second guess the state court's
interpretation of its own procedural rules in the context of habeas
review. Based on the Superior Court's conclusion that Thomas had no
meritorious claim under Rule 600 at the time of his second guilty
plea, Thomas has not--and cannot--demonstrate that trial counsel's
failure to raise such claims was unreasonable." *fn26
For the foregoing reasons, the Court overrules the objection and approves and adopts the R & R. As the parties agreed, and the R & R recommended, the Court will remand the case to the state court for re-sentencing in light of this Opinion and the Supreme Court's holdings in Graham.
An appropriate order follows.