Reasonable Minds May Differ: The Application of Miller and Graham to Consecutive Sentences for Juvenile Offenders in Missouri.

AuthorQuast, Shawna C.

    Ledale Nathan was convicted of second-degree murder and a series of nonhomicide offenses stemming from a home invasion he committed at the age of sixteen. (1) The St. Louis Circuit Court sentenced Nathan at a time when Eighth Amendment (2) jurisprudence regarding juvenile sentencing was in flux. The United States Supreme Court decided two cases that restricted the way courts sentence juvenile offenders: Graham v. Florida (3) and Miller v. Alabama. (4) Graham held that juvenile offenders who had not committed homicide offenses could not be sentenced to life without parole ("LWOP"), (5) while Miller held that LWOP could not be a mandatory sentence for juvenile homicide of-fenders. (6) However, Graham and Miller left two main questions unresolved. First, does Graham bar consecutive sentences for multiple nonhomicide offenses that effectively function as LWOP? Second, when a juvenile is convicted of homicide and nonhomicide offenses, does Miller require courts to consider mitigating evidence when imposing a sentence for the homicide offense alone, or must courts consider such evidence when imposing aggregate sentences for both the homicide and nonhomicide offenses?

    Even without addressing the latter question, the Miller decision prompted resentencing hearings for juvenile offenders throughout the United States, (7) including Nathan. (8) After a series of appeals and a resentencing, Nathan faced more than 300 years in prison resulting from twenty-six convictions. (9) The combined effect of the aggregate sentences--some of which Nathan had to serve consecutively--would leave the young offender in prison for the remainder of his expected life span before he would be eligible for parole. (10)

    In light of current United States Supreme Court decisions regarding juvenile sentencing and their subsequent application, some individuals in Nathan's position have had their sentences reviewed to ensure that they do not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. (11) State and federal courts have grappled with the scope of Miller and Graham, leading to inconsistent applications across jurisdictions. (12) Juveniles with lengthy aggregate sentences, like Nathan, have sought relief in the courts with mixed results. (13) Recently, the Supreme Court of Missouri offered its interpretation of Miller and Graham in State v. Nathan (14) and the contemporaneously opined Willbanks v. Department of Corrections. (15) In both cases, the court declined to apply the underlying rationale of Graham and Miller in a way that would bar consecutive sentences that function as LWOP for juvenile offenders. (16)

    Part II discusses the pertinent facts of State v. Nathan and the holdings of the court. Part III reviews relevant jurisprudence regarding juvenile sentencing. Part IV reviews the instant decision. Part V argues that while the holding in Graham did not apply to Nathan's case, and the Supreme Court of Missouri was not expressly required to apply Miller in light of Nathan's composite sentence, the spirit of the law necessarily requires such consideration.


    On October 5, 2009, sixteen-year-old Ledale Nathan and his twenty-two-year-old accomplice Mario Coleman approached off-duty St. Louis police officer Isabella Lovadina and her then-boyfriend Nicholas Koenig with guns drawn and demanded they turn over their belongings. (17) Following closely behind, Nathan and Coleman ordered the pair into the home where Koenig's grandmother, mother, aunt, and cousins--including Gina Stallis--slept. (18) Nathan attempted to force Stallis to the basement, at which point Lovadina charged Coleman. (19) While Nathan was trying to assist Coleman, Koenig attacked Nathan. (20) As the altercations ensued, seven shots were fired, which resulted in the death of Stallis and non-fatal injuries to Lovadina and Koenig. (21) Nathan and Coleman fled the scene. (22)

    The State charged Ledale Nathan with one count of first-degree murder (23) and first-degree burglary, (24) two counts of first-degree assault, (25) four counts of first-degree robbery, (26) five counts of kidnapping, (27) and thirteen counts of armed criminal action. (28) After a trial in the St. Louis City Circuit Court, a jury found Nathan guilty on all twenty-six counts, whereupon he waived jury sentencing. (29) For the first-degree murder conviction, the circuit court sentenced

    Nathan to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; (30) for the associated nonhomicide offenses, Nathan received five life sentences and five fifteen-year sentences, "which were to be served consecutively to each other and to the sentence for first-degree murder." (31) The circuit court also sentenced Nathan to eleven life sentences for the armed criminal action convictions, which were to be served concurrently with the other sentences. (32) The circuit court dismissed four additional counts, of which the jury had found Nathan guilty, for lack of jurisdiction. (33)

    Nathan first appealed his sentence on the ground that section 565.020 (34) of the Missouri Revised Statutes unconstitutionally imposed LWOP on a juvenile offender without consideration of his age, in violation of the then-recent Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama. (35) The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District found that the Supreme Court of Missouri had exclusive jurisdiction over appeals challenging the constitutionality of state statutes and transferred the case. (36)

    On appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri remanded the case to the circuit court for resentencing in light of Miller's prohibition on mandatory LWOP for juvenile offenders. (37) The court further found that the circuit court erred in dismissing the four additional charges against Nathan for lack of jurisdiction and ordered that the case be remanded for resentencing on those charges. (38)

    On remand, Nathan exercised his right to sentencing by jury. (39) The jury recommended a life sentence for the second-degree murder conviction, a thirty year sentence for the first-degree robbery, and a fifteen-year sentence for the kidnapping convictions. (40) The jury also recommended three additional life sentences for the associated armed criminal action convictions. (41)

    In accordance with Miller, the statute under which Nathan had originally been convicted of first-degree murder was no longer permissible, as it required individuals under the age of eighteen to receive a mandatory LWOP sentence. (42) During resentencing, LWOP for first-degree murder remained a possibility, but the jury did not unanimously decide to impose such a sentence after considering Nathan's age, the nature of his offense, and other mitigating factors. (43) Because of the jury's decision, the circuit court vacated the guilty verdict on the first-degree murder charge and "entered a finding of guilt for second-degree murder." (44) Because the statutory scheme changed in response to Miller, and because of Nathan's status as a juvenile at the time of the offense, Nathan could not be subjected to a mandatory LWOP sentence. (45)

    Nathan filed a motion for resentencing, arguing that the recommended consecutive sentences were the "functional equivalent of [LWOP]" and were thus unconstitutional. (46) The circuit court denied the motion, imposed the recommended sentences, and ordered the sentences to run consecutively with the exception of the armed criminal action convictions, which were to run concurrently. (47) Nathan appealed, arguing that the imposition of the consecutive sentences functioned as LWOP, which amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Court's holdings in Graham and Miller. (48)

    On appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the circuit court's sentences, finding that neither Graham nor Miller provided grounds for relief and rejecting the invitation to extend principles asserted therein to apply to consecutive sentences amounting to the functional equivalent of LWOP. (49)


    Laws regarding juvenile sentencing for homicide and nonhomicide offenses have been in flux since the early 1990s. (50) Since 2005 alone, the United States Supreme Court has issued three landmark decisions placing limits on constitutionally permissible sentences for juveniles. (51) Though recent decisions have established new constitutional standards for juvenile sentencing, questions regarding the scope of the decisions remain. Without further guidance from the Court, states have applied these limits differently. This Part will review Court cases relevant to juvenile sentencing and their rationales. This Part will also review pertinent cases from the Supreme Court of Missouri and other state and federal courts that have attempted to answer the questions left open by the Court's decisions.

    1. Authority from the United States Supreme Court

      The United States Supreme Court has decided several cases that established categorical bars on the imposition of the death penalty. (52) For example, in its 2002 decision of Atkins v. Virginia, the Court held unconstitutional the imposition of death upon "a mentally retarded offender." (53) Due to the evolution in understanding those with intellectual disabilities, evidenced by legislative actions and sentencing practices, such sentences became both cruel and unusual. (54)

      In 2005, the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision, Roper v. Simmons, which rendered the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders unconstitutional. (55) Simmons, who was seventeen at the time of his homicide offense, appealed his death sentence to the Supreme Court of Missouri, arguing that the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibited the execution of a juvenile under eighteen at the time of the offense. (56) The Supreme Court of Missouri agreed, set aside Simmons' death sentence, and sentenced him to LWOP. (57) The State of Missouri appealed to the Supreme Court of...

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