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Burrell v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

March 11, 2019

JUSTIN BURRELL, Defendant Below, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: December 12, 2018

          Court Below-Superior Court of the State of Delaware Cr. ID No. K9805012046

         Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED.

          Edward C. Gill, Esquire, Georgetown, Delaware for Appellant Justin Burrell.

          John R. Williams, Esquire, Department of Justice, Dover, Delaware for Appellee State of Delaware.

          Before VAUGHN, SEITZ, and TRAYNOR, Justices.

          TRAYNOR, JUSTICE.

         Following a Superior Court jury trial, Appellant Justin Burrell-who was three months shy of his eighteenth birthday at the time the crimes were committed- was convicted of first-degree murder, manslaughter, first-degree robbery, second-degree burglary, second-degree conspiracy, and four counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony ("PFDCF"). He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of probation or parole for the first-degree-murder charge plus 50 years' imprisonment for the remaining charges. In 2012, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, [1] which declared unconstitutional mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. In response to this ruling, the Delaware General Assembly enacted legislation modifying the juvenile sentencing scheme. Under the new statute, 11 Del. C. § 4209A,

[a]ny person who is convicted of first degree murder for an offense that was committed before the person had reached the person's eighteenth birthday shall be sentenced to [a] term of incarceration not less than 25 years to be served at Level V up to a term of imprisonment for the remainder of the person's natural life to be served at Level V without benefit of probation or parole or any other reduction.[2]

         At his resentencing, Burrell did not contest the applicability of § 4209A's 25-year minimum mandatory sentence to his first-degree-murder conviction, but argued that the court should not impose any additional statutory minimum mandatory incarceration for his five other convictions (first-degree robbery, second-degree burglary, and the three counts of PFDCF) on the grounds that such additional sentences would run afoul of Miller. The Superior Court disagreed and resentenced Burrell to the minimum mandatory 25 years' imprisonment for the first-degree-murder charge plus an additional minimum mandatory 12 years' incarceration for the other offenses. In this appeal, Burrell broadens his challenge, arguing that the Superior Court erred when it imposed the 25-year minimum mandatory sentence for the first-degree-murder charge and the additional 12 years for the companion offenses. Further, he claims that the sentencing statutes are unconstitutionally "overbroad." For the reasons that follow, we affirm the Superior Court's judgment.

         I

         William Davis was living in a mobile home located north of Dover with Dan and Dolly Fenwick and the Fenwicks' nine-year-old son, Danny. Davis, who sold marijuana while he lived with the Fenwicks, kept approximately $20, 000 in cash in a safe under his bed. In April 1998, Davis' former roommate, William Scott, observed Davis remove $4, 500 in cash from the safe to purchase a car.

         In May 1998, Scott developed a plan to steal Davis' money. He enlisted the help of Burrell, who was then seventeen years old, to carry out the robbery plan. Scott provided Burrell with a hand-drawn map of the intended robbery location. On May 18, 1998, the two went to the trailer park so that Scott could point out the Fenwick residence to Burrell. The following morning, Scott gave Burrell a backpack and a handgun. Burrell left Scott's home and proceeded to the Fenwick residence.

         Burrell arrived at the Fenwick residence dressed in a wig, hat, sunglasses, and his sister's makeup. With the gun in his hand, Burrell knocked on the door and forced his way inside when Dolly answered. Danny, who had stayed home sick from school that day, observed Burrell hit his mother with the gun and drag her into Davis' bedroom. Upon entering the room, Danny heard Burrell repeatedly ask "where is it?" and "I'll shoot Danny, too." After a gunshot was fired, Burrell left the home. Danny went to a neighbor's home and the police were called.

         At his trial, Burrell admitted to going to the Fenwick residence with a gun in his hand, forcing his way into their home, striking Dolly twice in the head with the gun, threatening to shoot her, and holding her hair in one hand while pointing the gun at her head. He testified that the gun discharged accidentally and that he had no intention of killing Dolly. When the gun went off, Dolly was crouched on the floor of Davis' room and Burrell, holding her hair, was standing behind her. The bullet was lodged in Dolly's neck. The wound was a close contact wound indicative of a gun being held tightly against her scalp.

         As mentioned, Burrell was found guilty of first-degree murder, manslaughter, first-degree robbery, second-degree burglary, second-degree conspiracy, and four counts of PFDCF. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of probation or parole for the first-degree-murder charge, followed by an additional 50 years' imprisonment for the remaining charges. All sentences were to run consecutively. This Court affirmed his conviction on direct appeal.[3]

         In 2012, the United States Supreme Court, in Miller, [4] held that mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eight Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. In June 2018, the Superior Court resentenced Burrell in compliance with Miller. In accordance with 11 Del. C. § 4209A, which was enacted in 2013 in response to Miller, the court sentenced Burrell to 25 years of Level V incarceration for the first-degree murder conviction. The court also imposed the statutory minimum mandatory periods of incarceration for Burrell's first-degree robbery (two years), second-degree burglary (one year), and three possession-of-a-firearm-during-the-commission-of-a-felony (two years for each) convictions, bringing the aggregate sentence to 37 years. This appeal followed.

         II

         We review questions of law and constitutional claims de novo.[5] Ordinarily, we will not consider questions that have not been fairly presented to the trial court absent plain error.[6] "[T]he doctrine of plain error is limited to material defects which are apparent on the face of the record; which are basic, serious and fundamental in their character, and which clearly deprive an accused of a substantial right, or which clearly shows manifest justice."[7]

         III

         In reliance upon Miller, the cruel-and-unusual punishments provisions of the United States and Delaware Constitutions, and a handful of opinions from state courts in Iowa and Wisconsin, Burrell essentially asks us to hold that all Delaware statutes that call for minimum mandatory sentences are unconstitutional when applied to juveniles.[8] This represents a significant departure from Burrell's argument before the sentencing court, where he acknowledged that the court was required to impose a 25-year minimum sentence for the first-degree-murder conviction.[9]

         A

         Burrell contends that, under Miller, a judge should have full discretion to impose a sentence on juveniles without regard to minimum mandatory requirements. Burrell reads Miller for the sweeping proposition that, when sentencing juveniles- even for the most serious offenses-judges "should have absolute discretion"[10] and must disregard any minimum mandatory sentences as a matter of constitutional law.

         Burrell's reliance on Miller is misplaced. Miller did not denounce all minimum mandatory sentencing requirements for juveniles. Miller instead- without adopting a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles-declared that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment "forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders."[11]

         To be sure, the Miller majority, pointing to the Court's earlier opinions in Roper v. Simmons[12] and Graham v. Florida, [13] recognized that "children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform . . ., 'they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.'"[14] Therefore, a sentencing scheme that metes out one of the law's harshest punishments-life without probation or parole- to a juvenile without regard for their youth "poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment"[15] and violates the Eighth Amendment. But Burrell ignores the fact that the General Assembly responded to the concerns expressed in Miller by enacting 11 Del. C. § 4209A, a statute that explicitly treats juveniles more leniently than their adult counterparts.

         In contrast to the mandatory life sentences applicable to adults convicted of first-degree murder, § 4209A sets a sentencing range for juveniles who are convicted of first-degree murder of 25 years' imprisonment up to life imprisonment without benefit of probation or parole or any other reduction. What is more, in the wake of Miller, the General Assembly also amended 11 Del. C. § 4204A to provide that

any offender sentenced to a term of incarceration for Murder First Degree when said offense was committed prior to the offender's eighteenth birthday shall be eligible to petition the Superior Court for sentence modification after the offender has served 30 years of the originally imposed Level V [imprisonment] sentence.[16]

         Notably, the State has conceded that, although Burrell received a 25-year sentence for his first-degree-murder conviction, he is nevertheless eligible to apply for a sentence modification after he has served 30 years of his total 37-year sentence.[17]

         Apparently recognizing that Miller's holding does not support his position, Burrell also argues that, if we only read Miller together with our holding in Sanders v. State,[18] we would see that juvenile minimum mandatory sentences are constitutionally forbidden.[19] But Sanders says nothing of the sort. It (or at least the portion cited by Burrell) stands for the unremarkable proposition that the Delaware Constitution, no less than the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, "demands that a death sentence be proportionate to a defendant's culpability and that it accomplish some legitimate penological end."[20] Put simply, Burrell's claim that ...


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