Should Miller v. Alabama be applied retroactively?

The title of this post is a question that has yet to be definitively answered in the wake of Miller v. Alabama, in which the U.S. Supreme court ended mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders who have committed homicides.

Professor Laurie Levenson (Loyola L.A. Law School) has an interesting piece addressing this question in the National Law Journal.  It includes the following:

The most intriguing retroactivity issue is raised by Miller v. Alabama. The question is whether the decision in that case will be applied retroactively to all defendants who received mandatory life imprisonment for homicides as juveniles. More than 2,000 young people have received such a sentence. Undoubtedly, they will now seek relief under the court’s new decision.

Instinctively, one is tempted to find that any defendant who received such a mandatory life sentence should have the right to have that sentence vacated. After all, when the Supreme Court held in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), that the death penalty was unconstitutional for juveniles, there was an immediate end to all executions of juveniles. Likewise, when the court in Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010), struck down life sentences for juveniles who commit nonhomicide offenses, youth offenders immediately began to challenge their sentences.

However, the courts have not unanimously embraced retroactivity for Graham v. Florida. Some courts held that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Graham was a substantive change that should be applied retroactively under the first Teague exception. See, e.g., In re Sparks, 657 F.3d 258, 261 (5th Cir. 2011); State v. Jason Means, No. 167295 (Iowa 2010); Bell v. Haws, 2010 WL 3447218, at *9 n.6 (C.D. Calif. July 14, 2010); Bonilla v. State, 791 N.W.2d 697, 700-01 (Iowa 2010).

By contrast, other courts held that Graham should not be applied retroactively because it was a mere procedural change in the law of sentencing. See, e.g., Lawson v. Pennsylvania, 2010 WL 5300531, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 21, 2010); Jensen v. Zavaras, 2010 WL 2825666, at *1-*2 (D. Colo. July 16, 2010).

Efforts to apply Miller v. Alabama retroactively may face similar challenges. Those who oppose retroactive application of Miller are likely to claim that it is nothing more than a procedural change in how life without parole is imposed. After all, Miller does not create an absolute prohibition on life-without-parole sentences. It only prohibits automatic life without parole sentences. States can still impose life without parole if they use proper procedures that allow jurors to determine if that is the appropriate sentence.

Moreover, opponents of retroactivity can point to the Supreme Court’s decision in Schriro v. Summerlin, 124 S. Ct. 2519 (2004), for their claim that Miller should not be applied retroactively.  In Schriro, Warren Summerlin was sentenced to the death penalty without receiving the procedural protections of a jury trial to determine the existence of aggravating factors used to sentence him to death. The court had previously held in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), that a defendant has a right to a jury trial on whether aggravating factors existed to justify imposition of the death penalty. However, writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia held that, although jury findings are critical to the right to a jury trial, the court’s holding in Ring was not a “watershed” rule and should not be applied retroactively. Instead, the court found that the requirement of jury findings was a procedural change that fell under the general Teague rule barring retroactivity. Similarly,Miller does not bar a punishment; it just requires different procedures to ensure that a juvenile’s status is taken into account in deciding whether it should apply.

In response, those who favor Miller‘s retroactivity will argue that, like Graham v. FloridaMiller made a substantive change in the law. Specifically, courts have held that the first Teague exception, which holds that a ruling is retroactive if it places “certain kinds of primary, individual conduct beyond the power of the criminal law-making authority to proscribe,” has been expanded.Teague, 489 U.S. at 307. It applies “not only [to] rules forbidding criminal punishment of certain primary conduct but also to rules prohibiting a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense.” In re Sparks, 657 F.3d at 261; State v. Jason Means.

Miller prohibits mandatory life without parole as a punishment for a specific class of defendants — juveniles. Life without parole can be justified only in the uncommon situation where the state demonstrates that it is warranted, notwithstanding the defendant’s age. To make this showing, states will need to reopen their cases. Practically, this means that Miller will most likely need to be given retroactive effect.

Supreme Court cases often make dramatic changes in the law. Exactly how profound those changes will be is often determined by the question of retroactivity. Ultimately, that too may be an issue for the high court to decide.

Your thoughts?  Should Miller be retroactive?  Please share in the comments.

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About Tamar Birckhead

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8 Responses to Should Miller v. Alabama be applied retroactively?

  1. Alex S. says:

    What about Woodson v. North Carolina? Was that applied retroactively? I guess that statute was so recently passed (post-Furman) that there were no “final” cases at the time of the 1976 decision.

  2. Raven says:

    Yes, Miller should be applied retroactively because it’s already been applied retroactively. What folks seem to ignore in Miller is its companion case, Jackson v. Hobbs. Jackson arose on collateral review, meaning his LWOP sentence was already final. So, the only way Jackson could have been granted relief was if the Miller decision was applied retroactively. When SCOTUS vacated Jackson’s sentence, it did just that. “[O]nce a new rule is applied to the defendant in the case announcing the rule, evenhanded justice requires that it be applied retroactively to all who are
    similarly situated.” Teague at 300. Accordingly, Miller should be applied retroactively to all who are similarly situated to Jackson.

  3. I find the Jackson argument compelling, but our State’s Attorney General is arguing that the Arkansas Attorney General had waived the retroactivity argument by not briefing it. All the briefs are available at:

    Our case is being argued tomorrow. I listened to the orals in Commonwealth v Cunningham and the Court clearly had some doubts. Conversely, Louisiana applied the case retroactively.

    • tbirckhe says:

      Stuart — thanks for the links. Keep me posted on what happens in Arkansas. It’s state by state these days w/the retroactivity issue.

  4. We discuss this issue extensively at our website ( and draw together much information from all over the nation. While our main concern is the horrific impact this whole process is having on victims families, we are pleased to see the legal trend all over the nation is away from retroactive application of Miller. With good reason. See our site and please, everyone, in your wranglings of this issue, remember that there are heinous murders at the heart of this issue, and devastated families left behind who find this whole process agonizing beyond words.

  5. The issue of retroactivity is being litigated in Iowa in Louisell v. State. It is difficult to reconcile the idea of evenhanded justice, and not applying the Miller retroactively. Why should the ruling be extended to a very select group of inmates who were petitioners, and not all other similar situated individuals? Especially in light of Jackson, which as pointed out above, was a collateral attack.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Does anyone know if there are pending cases before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding retroactivity of Miller?

  7. Matthew Shimanovsky says:

    Miller should apply retroactively. It seems contrary to justice to limit its holding to the lucky two people who happened to be the petitioners that made it to SCOTUS. Especially since the companion case, Jackson, was raised in colateral review.