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Criminal Defense Attorneys

No Youth Offender Parole Hearing if LWOP After Age 18?

The following title to this summary of a Second Appellate District Court opinion may be misunderstood by many if a Franklin Hearing is a consideration.

Petitioner Mike Williams was 21 years old when he shot and killed two people during a robbery.  A jury in Lancaster Superior Court convicted him of two counts of first degree murder (Penal Code § 187(a)) and found true the allegation that he personally used a firearm in the commission of the robbery (Penal Code § 12022.5(a)).  The jury also found true the allegation that he committed multiple murders and murder during the commission of a robbery (Penal Code § 190.2(a)(17)).

The judge sentenced him to two consecutive terms of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

In January, 2020, Mr. Williams, in pro per, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, arguing that his being denied a youth offender parole hearing under Penal Code § 3051 violated his right to equal protection of the laws and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Under Penal Code § 3051(b), most inmates under age 26 at the time of their “controlling offense” become eligible for a youth offender parole hearing in their 15th, 20th or 25th year of incarceration.  The different statutory parole hearing dates depend on the offense. 

These hearings were established in 2013 following a series of United States and California Supreme Court cases addressing the constitutionality of lengthy prison sentences for juvenile offenders, i.e. Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48; Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460.  These cases recognized the diminished capacity of juveniles and their greater capacity for reform, often citing cognitive and neurological brain development science and psychological studies finding such younger people have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, leading to recklessness, impulsivity and heedless risk-taking.

Section 3051(h) is the exception to the rule.  It excludes from youth offender parole hearings offenders, like Mr. Williams, who are serving LWOP sentences for offenses committed “after the person had attained 18 years of age.” 

The trial court denied the petition, so Williams appealed to the Second Appellate District Court in Los Angeles.
 
It explained that to succeed on an equal protection claim, petitioner (Williams) must first show that “the state has adopted a classification that affects two or more similarly situated groups in an unequal manner”  Where a class of criminal defendants, those over 18 and sentenced to LWOP sentences, is similarly situated to another class of defendants who are sentenced differently, courts must determine if there is a rational basis for the difference.  People v. Edwards (2019) 34 Cal.App.4th 183, 195.  Equal protection of the law is denied only where there is no ‘rational relationship between the disparity of treatment and some legitimate governmental purpose.”

The Second Appellate District, in evaluating Williams’ argument, disagreed that youth offenders sentenced to LWOP and those youth offenders sentenced to parole-eligible life terms are similarly situated with respect to the Legislature’s first goal, which is to calibrate sentences in accordance with youthful offenders’ diminished capacity.  “Persons convicted of different crimes are not similarly situated of equal protection purposes.”  People v. Macias (1982) 137 Cal.App.3d 465, 473; People v. Pecci (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 1500, 1503 (“persons convicted of different offenses can be punished differently”).

It then commented that “where two groups of individuals are not similarly situated for purposes of the law being challenged, we need not proceed to the next step of the equal protection analysis.”  People v. Moreno (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 934, 941-942. 

However, the Second Appellate Court then went even further, stating that “even if we assume petitioner is similarly situated to non-LWOP indeterminately-sentenced youth offenders aged 18 to 25, we still would find no equal protection violation.”  It explained that this was so because equal protection is denied only where there “is no rational relationship between the disparity of treatment and some legitimate governmental purpose.”  People v. Williams (2020) 47 Cal.App.5th 475, 489.  So long as there is “any conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis” for the disparity, “equal protection analysis does not entitle the judiciary to second-guess the wisdom, fairness or logic of the law.”  People v. Turnage (2012) 55 Cal.4th 62, 74-75.

We present this case summary of youth offender parole hearing rights because it suggests a Franklin hearing would be a right to someone under 18 at the time of the crime and sentenced to an LWOP sentence, but it would not be a right to someone 18 or older also sentenced to an LWOP sentence.

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