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Miller v. Wetzel

United States District Court, Third Circuit

July 11, 2013

JOHNNY MILLER, Petitioner,
v.
JOHN WETZEL, Respondent.

AMENDED MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. BACKGROUND

The petitioner in this habeas corpus proceeding, Johnny Miller, is an inmate in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and is currently housed at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy, in Frackville, Pennsylvania. Miller is serving a life sentence that was imposed following his conviction of first-degree murder in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas. Miller was16 years old at the time of the offense.

Miller commenced the above-captioned action by filing a petition for habeas corpus on May 30, 2013. In the petition, Miller argues that his sentence of life imprisonment for murder committed when he was a juvenile is unconstitutional in light of the Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), in which the Supreme Court held that sentencing schemes involving mandatory life imprisonment for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.

On June 7, 2013, the district court issued an order dismissing the petition, without prejudice, on the grounds that the petitioner had not exhausted his claims through proceedings under Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 9541-9546. (Doc. 4.) In a memorandum that accompanied the order, the district court did not directly address whether it may be appropriate to stay consideration of Miller's federal petition pending the exhaustion of his PCRA claims, and instead found the petition to be premature, and ordered that it be dismissed without prejudice. (Doc. 3.)

On June 20, 2013, the petitioner filed a pro se motion for reconsideration of the order dismissing his petition, and additionally moved the Court to stay consideration of his federal habeas petition while his PCRA claims were adjudicated in state court. (Doc. 5.) On the same day, the district court entered a verbal order reopening the case, and referred the case to the undersigned for pre-trial management. (Civ. A. No. 3:13-CV-1452, June 20, 2013 verbal order.) Also on June 20, 2013, the Federal Public Defender for the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania was appointed pursuant to Standing Order 13-6 to represent Miller and other similarly situated petitioners who had filed petitions based upon the holding in Miller v. Alabama . (Doc. 6.)

On July 3, 2013, Miller's newly appointed counsel filed a motion to withdraw the pro se motion for reconsideration that had been filed, and requested that the Court grant Miller's motion to stay and hold in abeyance the federal habeas corpus proceedings so that Miller could exhaust his claims in state court. (Doc. 7.) The Dauphin County District Attorney, representing the respondents, concurred in the motion. (Id.)

Following this procedural history, and to ensure clarity of the record in this case, we observe that the June 7 order that initially dismissed the petition without prejudice (Doc. 4.) was effectively vacated by the district court's June 20 verbal order reopening the case and referring it to the undersigned. Accordingly, the petitioner's motion to withdraw his motion for reconsideration of the district court's order was rendered moot by virtue of the order reopening the case, and the petitioner's motion for reconsideration had no relevance to or effect upon the petition itself. Instead, the motion remained relevant only to Miller's request that the Court issue an order staying these proceedings pending the outcome of Miller's state-court litigation.

We have now considered Miller's concurred-in motion to stay and hold in abeyance these federal proceedings pending exhaustion of his state claims, and find the motion should be granted, as explained below.

II. DISCUSSION

State prisoners who turn to the federal courts seeking habeas corpus relief are often called upon to chart a careful course between competing procedural shoals. Prisoners who file prematurely may run afoul of one of the statutory prerequisites to a state prisoner seeking habeas corpus relief in federal court, "exhaust[ion of] the remedies available in the courts of the State." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). Prisoners who delay in filing may find that the one-year statute of limitations applicable to habeas petitions under 28 U.S.C. § 2244, now bars their access to federal court. Thus, prisoners often must endeavor to steer a course between the Scylla of § 2254's exhaustion requirement and the Charybdis of the bar of the statute of limitations.

In these proceedings, each of the petitioners is an inmate in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and each is serving a sentence of life imprisonment that was imposed after the petitioner was convicted of murder. Each petitioner has filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, arguing that his or her sentence of life imprisonment is unconstitutional under the Eighth And Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, in light of the United States Supreme Court's holding in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ____, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012). We are overseeing pre-trial management in each of these cases.

Each of the petitioners has moved the Court to stay and hold these proceedings in abeyance pending the outcome of post-conviction applications brought pursuant to Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 9541-9546 (PCRA), all of which are currently pending in Pennsylvania state courts. (Doc. 7.) The petitioners seek to stay their federal proceedings while they complete the process of exhausting their claims in state court, in order to guard against the possibility that their federal habeas petitions could later be found to be untimely under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).

The AEDPA imposes a one-year statute of limitations on applications for writs of habeas corpus. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A), the statute of limitations begins to run from "the date on which the judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review." At the same time, the AEDPA obligates petitioners to exhaust their claims in state court before proceeding with a habeas corpus petition in federal court, but provides that the ...


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