Friday, September 26, 2014

Not Cruel, Not Unusual

In Re Stevens, 2014 VT 6

By Merrill Bent

Today’s petitioner is not so good at murder. Unfortunately for him, his status as an unsuccessful killer does not really bring him any perks, except maybe "three hots and a cot" and an hour in the yard.

Petitioner was convicted of attempted first-degree murder, two counts of aggravated assault, kidnapping, burglary, and violating an abuse-prevention order after he broke into his ex-girlfriend’s hotel room and attacked her and her boyfriend with a hammer before attempting to drag the ex to a van with the intent to restrain her inside and set the van aflame. Fortunately, some neighbors intervened, and were able to subdue and restrain the guy before he could execute his plan.

The trial court sentenced petitioner to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the sentencing hearing, the court took into consideration petitioner’s mental health and childhood trauma on the one hand, but on the other, that he had previously shot at his ex-wife and children when he learned that she wished to end the marriage. The trial court also pointed to the brutality with which petitioner planned to kill his ex girlfriend and concluded that petitioner should be deprived of the chance to hurt anyone else. The sentence was upheld upon petitioner’s direct appeal. 

Petitioner then sought post-conviction relief, arguing that a life sentence without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, which relief the trial court denied on summary judgment. Petitioner then appealed to the SCOV.

The SCOV then lays out the standard for determining whether a punishment violates the Eighth Amendment: it must be “grossly disproportionate” to the conduct it’s meant to punish. In making that determination, a court must first weigh the gravity of the offense against the harshness of the penalty and, if that that threshold analysis suggests gross disproportionality, then a court may go on to consider sentences given for similar crimes within the same jurisdiction, and sentences for the same crime imposed in other jurisdictions.

The SCOV recites the facts of petitioner’s offense, in particular his “well developed” plan to kill his ex girlfriend “in a particularly cruel and painful manner,” as well as his history of violence against family members and concludes that, while harsh, a sentence of life without parole was not out of proportion. The SCOV also rejects petitioner’s assertion that he should be judged less harshly because the victims in fact came to very little harm—the fact that petitioner is not the world’s best murderer does not diminish his culpability given that his plan was thwarted only because of intervening forces outside of his control. The attempted murder law in Vermont supports this conclusion, as it reflects the Legislature’s intent that an attempted murderer should be punished in the same manner as a successful one.

Because petitioner’s sentence did not meet the disproportionality threshold, the SCOV does not consider similar sentences within or outside of the jurisdiction.

Maybe he’ll come up with a better argument next time—he does have an awful lot of time on his hands these days.

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