People v. Harris, 2016 IL App (1st) 141744 (December) & People v. Horta, 2016 IL App (2nd)140714 (December). Episode 281 (Duration 12:32)
18 year old shooter gets a de facto life sentence of 76 years which shock the moral sense of the community (according to this appellate panel). While another 18 year old receives 59 years for a heinous murder that sticks.
People v. Harris
Defendant shot and killed one person at a gas station.
He shot another person but that person survived. Then he pointed his gun at a third person and pulled the trigger. But he had run out of bullets. Defendant was 18 years old and this appeared to be some kind of dispute between defendant and the victims.
The aggregate sentence was 76 years: 45 years of imprisonment on the murder conviction (20 years for the offense plus 25 years for the mandatory firearm enhancement), 26 years for one attempt murder (6 years plus 20 years for the mandatory firearm enhancement); and 31 years for the other attempt murder (6 years plus 25 years enhancement).
The attempted murder counts were to run concurrently with each other, but consecutively to the murder sentence.
Defendant alleges that this lengthy term is actually a “mandatory de facto life sentence,” and the interaction of these statutes prevented the trial court from exercising any discretion or taking into account his youth or rehabilitative potential. This statutory scheme, according to defendant, violates both the federal and state constitutions as applied to him. He challenges these statutes under both the eighth amendment of the federal constitution and the “proportionate penalties” clause of the Illinois Constitution (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 11).
The Illinois constitution provides, “[a]ll penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.” Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 11.
This clause is generally referred to as the “proportionate penalties” clause, but the second half of the section would be better considered as its own concept: the “rehabilitation” clause.
The mandate that all criminal penalties be determined “with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship” is no less a requirement than the rest of the section, and has yet to receive the scrutiny and attention it properly deserves as a distinctive component of Illinois’ constitution. Defendant may show a violation of this clause if his sentence is “cruel, degrading, or so wholly disproportionate to the offense committed as to shock the moral sense of the community.”
As society evolves, “so too do our concepts of elemental decency and fairness which shape the moral sense of the community.” So we must consider objective evidence and “the community’s changing standard of moral decency.”
De Facto Life Sentence
The court concluded this was a de facto life sentence; at best, he would be released at age 89.
Interestingly, the court saw there was no Eighth Amendment violation here as illustrated by the Roper, Grahm, Miller trilogy. The Court drew a line between juveniles and adults at the age of 18 years; while it acknowledged that the line was arbitrary, it “must be drawn.”
However, the court held that this 76-year sentence violates article I, section 11 of the Illinois Constitution, with its language mandating that penalties should have “the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.” Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 11.
The court noted that the new statutory language after Roper, Graham, and Miller “stand for the proposition that a sentencing body must have a chance to take into account mitigating circumstances, i.e., a juvenile’s age and attendant circumstances, before sentencing the juvenile to the harshest possibility penalty.”
The new statutory scheme and the preceding case law incorporate the separation of powers doctrine and reinstate judicial discretion in juvenile sentencing. Research in neurobiology and developmental psychology has shown that the brain doesn’t finish developing until the mid-20s, far later than was previously thought. Young adults are more similar to adolescents than fully mature adults in important ways.
They are more susceptible to peer pressure, less future-oriented and more volatile in emotionally charged settings.
Further, the Illinois Supreme Court has recognized that research on juvenile maturity and brain development might also apply to young adults. Many of the concerns and policies underlying our juvenile court system apply with equal force to a person of defendant’s age.
The confluence of sentencing statutes, which the trial court was required to apply, is absolutely contrary to that constitutional objective of the rehabilitation clause.
The reviewing court was saying that his sentencing should have been similarly specific to his own circumstances, to effectuate the constitutional mandate of restoring Harris to useful citizenship.
The court said it shocks the moral sense of the community to send this young adult to prison for the remainder of his life, with no chance to rehabilitate himself into a useful member of society.
The application of these enhancements prevented the trial court from constructing a sentence that had any chance of returning Harris to society, even if the court thought that Harris was a good candidate to rehabilitate himself.
Strip Judicial Discretion
The court urged the legislature to consider the research regarding brain development in young adults who are not legally juveniles when analyzing the sentencing statutes for adults, including consecutive sentencing, truth in sentencing, and mandatory sentencing enhancements.
These statutory provisions strip judicial discretion when our criminal justice system would be better served by a case-by-case analysis in which the sentence imposed is individualized to the offender and the offense.
See the dissent who wrote that the trial court could have imposed a life sentence, but exercised its discretion to instead impose the minimum term authorized by law.
The dissent rightly argued that defendant’s stable home life is not a mitigating factor; however, that evidence, along with his educational achievements, does support the notion that he might be able to rehabilitate himself if given the opportunity. Or, in the words of our constitution, might be able to restore himself to “useful citizenship.”
The trial court is simply not at liberty to impose a lesser sentence on remand. And while I share the majority’s concern over the length of Harris’ minimum prison sentence, the remedy lies with the legislature, not in ad hoc determinations made by this court or by trial judges. The same proportionate penalties clause argument could be advanced by a 20-year-old, a 25-year-old or a 30-year-old defendant who had no prior criminal convictions.
And while a compelling argument can be made that vesting greater sentencing discretion in trial courts would result in fewer de facto life sentences for young offenders, the legislature has not chosen to do so.
People v. Horta
Defendant was 18 years old with no juvenile record and one adult Class 4 felony for which he had received probation.
The trial established that he was not a principal but an accomplice to the murder; he did not plan it, contact the other participants, or participate in the strangulation.
The victim was tortured, beat, and bags placed over his head and tied closed. His role was only to hold a gun. One Codefendant convicted of first degree murder was sentenced to 29 years’ imprisonment. He had a serious criminal history and had been involved in a large drug distribution scheme. One flipper pleaded guilty to obstructing justice, a Class 4 felony, and had not yet been sentenced. Two other codefendants received 35 years and 40 years.
Defendant challenged his conviction and 59 year sentence.
This was some kind of vigilantism, with no evidence that the victim he had been involved in a prior kidnapping and rape of a girl. Defendant, “without hesitation,” agreed to participate in the murder. Defendant told the police that he not only pointed a gun at the victim but ordered him to get on his knees and asked him whether he would like defendant to put a bullet into his head.
Moreover, he helped to dispose of the body and accepted $1000 from the victim’s pockets as compensation for his role in the murder.
Defendant concedes that his sentence is within the statutory limits; indeed, it could easily have been much longer.
The trial court could have imposed life imprisonment, based on the jury’s finding of exceptionally brutal or heinous conduct. Even after declining this option, the court could have imposed a total of 75 years’ imprisonment—the maximum of the base range plus the mandatory 15-year add-on.
Instead, defendant received a total of 59 years’ imprisonment—24 years more than the effective minimum, but only 14 years more than what he himself requested.
The court held that the trial court’s weighing of the various factors in aggravation and mitigation did not exceed its broad discretion or that defendant’s sentence, although unquestionably severe, departed from the spirit and purpose of the law or was manifestly disproportionate to the offense.
There were several factors in aggravation that the trial court properly considered.
For one, although the court did not use the jury’s finding of exceptionally brutal or heinous conduct to sentence defendant to life, it quite reasonably considered the premeditation and extreme brutality of the victim’s torture-murder, as well as its utter gratuitousness.
Defendant attached himself to a group that planned this execution with only the flimsiest grounds to suspect the victim of any basis for their revenge.
He died not immediately but slowly (how slowly is uncertain) from strangulation or asphyxiation. And, before he died, he suffered severe external and internal wounds from blows to his head, neck, and chest, and from the application of the blowtorch to his genitalia and legs.
Seriousness of the Offense
The seriousness of the offense has been called the most important consideration in sentencing. The crime here was premeditated, gratuitous, and sadistic to a degree that must be considered extraordinary even for a first-degree murder. The extreme heinousness of the offense was not the only aggravating factor on which the trial court properly relied. The court also considered that defendant was compensated for the offense, receiving $1000 for one evening’s work.
Defendant returns to the theme that his youth and relatively light criminal record militate against a sentence that, in effect, treated his rehabilitative potential as deserving no weight in the determination of his punishment. He concludes that, in effect, the mandatory 15-year add-on prevented the trial court from following its constitutional obligation to base his sentence not only on the seriousness of his crime but also on the objective of restoring him to useful citizenship.
The recent Supreme Court and Illinois Supreme Court precedents are of no aid to defendant.
Although he contends that the reasoning on which they are based should apply to his case, in which he was less than a year past his eighteenth birthday when he committed his offense, those opinions explicitly limit their scope to the sentencing of those who were under 18 years old at the time of their crimes.
A line must be drawn.
The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood.
Not a Life Sentence
In any event, the Court’s eighth-amendment jurisprudence would be of no help to defendant. He did not receive the harshest possible penalty for his crime, and the sentencing scheme, considered as a whole, gave the trial court the discretion to impose a prison term of as little as 35 years.
That is not a de facto life sentence.
In the Illinois precedents mandatory enhancements (including mandatory consecutive sentences) drastically limited the trial judges’ latitude in applying factors in mitigation.
And, in those cases, there was reason to believe that the mandatory enhancements frustrated the trial judges’ intentions by imposing sweeping legislative mandates that had draconian consequences and restricted or nearly neutralized the judges’ application of individualized attention to the circumstances of the particular defendants.
That is far from the situation here.
Defendant faced a minimum sentence of 20 years without the mandatory enhancement and 35 years with it. The trial court, finding numerous factors in aggravation and little in mitigation, sentenced him to 44 years’ imprisonment plus the 15-year add-on.
To the extent that he received a de facto life sentence, it was less the result of the add-on and more the result of the trial court’s exercise of its still considerable discretion. Based on its individualized assessment of defendant’s criminal conduct, character, and background, the court chose a base sentence that was 24 years more than the minimum—but 16 years less than the maximum, even discounting the available option of life imprisonment based on exceptionally brutal or heinous conduct.
These realities do not support any contention that the application of the mandatory addon resulted in a sentence that shocks the conscience of the community or is inconsistent with precedent from either the Supreme Court or our state’s courts. Defendant’s proportionate penalties claim fails.