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State v. Shanahan

Supreme Court of Idaho

July 11, 2019

STATE OF IDAHO, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
CHRISTOPHER T. SHANAHAN, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the District Court of the Seventh Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Jefferson County. Alan C. Stephens, District Judge.

         The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

          Ferguson Durham PLLC, Boise, for Appellant. Craig H. Durham argued.

          Lawrence G. Wasden, Idaho Attorney General, Boise, for Respondent. Kenneth K. Jorgensen argued.

          MOELLER, JUSTICE.

         I. NATURE OF THE CASE

         Christopher T. Shanahan appeals from a district court decision denying his motion to correct an allegedly illegal sentence imposed in 1997. Shanahan argues that his indeterminate life sentence, with the first thirty-five years fixed, for a murder he committed as a juvenile in 1995 is equivalent to a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Therefore, he asserts that under Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) and persuasive precedent from other states, he is entitled to a new sentencing where his youth and its attendant characteristics may be properly considered. Otherwise, he argues, his sentence violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The district court denied the motion on the basis that Miller is inapplicable to Shanahan's sentence and, even if it applied, the sentencing court heard testimony regarding his age and mental health prior to sentencing him. For the reasons stated below, we affirm.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In the Fall of 1995, Shanahan and two friends devised a scheme to rob a convenience store in Grant, Idaho, and use the money to travel to Las Vegas, Nevada. Once there, they planned to join a gang and lead a life of crime. Shanahan was fifteen years old at that time.

         The day before the robbery was to occur, Shanahan explained the plan to other friends and said that, if necessary, he would shoot the store clerk. He apparently believed that killing someone would lend itself to his initiation into a gang. In an effort to dissuade him from his intended course of action, some of his friends offered him money for the trip to Las Vegas, but he refused.

         The next day, Shanahan and two friends obtained guns, ammunition, gloves, and gas cans from their homes and Shanahan drove them to the store. Before entering the store, they discussed each person's role and Shanahan agreed that he would shoot the clerk.[1] After waiting for two people to leave the store, Shanahan signaled to one of his friends to enter. His friend's role was to distract the clerk so that she would not activate any alarms. Shanahan then put on gloves, so as not to leave fingerprints, and entered the store with a .22 caliber sawed-off rifle.[2] Inside, he joined his friend who was in the aisle next to where the clerk, Fidela Tomchak, was stocking a beverage cooler. From there, Shanahan positioned himself behind a rack of potato chips approximately three feet from Mrs. Tomchak, lifted the rifle, lowered it briefly, and then lifted it again and shot her in the back of the head, killing her. Although he later denied that his action was racially motivated, he referred to Mrs. Tomchak as a "Mexican bitch" while talking with his friends the night before he shot her. After killing her, Shanahan went to where her body lay, looked at her, and then proceeded to scan the store for witnesses, whom he testified he would have also killed. Upon finding no one else in the store, Shanahan went to the cash register, removed just over $200, stole some cigarettes, and ran out of the store. The three boys then drove to Las Vegas.

         The boys' plan fell apart shortly after they arrived when one of them became homesick and they decided to return to Idaho together. However, while driving back, they were stopped in Utah and arrested. One of Shanahan's friends confessed to the crimes, and as a result, Shanahan was charged with first degree murder and robbery with a sentencing enhancement because he used a firearm in the commission of the crimes. Shanahan pled guilty to the charges in exchange for the State dismissing the enhancement, agreeing not to seek the death penalty, [3] and recommending concurrent sentences. Shanahan then filed a motion seeking to be sentenced pursuant to the Juvenile Corrections Act. Given the egregious nature of his crimes, the motion was denied. At sentencing, the trial court considered a presentence investigation report and heard testimony from Mrs. Tomchak's husband, daughter, step-son, and the lead investigator on the case, as well as from Shanahan's mother, sister, and friends. Additionally, two mental health experts testified about Shanahan's psychological profile, which included evidence that he was significantly immature for his age, struggled from his parents' divorce and his father's emotional absence, and was susceptible to peer influences.

         After extensive fact-finding, the district court "focused primarily on the age of the defendant in determining the death penalty was not an appropriate sentencing option." In its analysis of the potential for Shanahan's rehabilitation, the district court found that due to his young age, there was hope that he could "eventually become a contributing member of society." However, given the heinous nature of the crime committed, the district court sentenced Shanahan to concurrent unified life terms with thirty-five years fixed for the murder and ten years fixed for the robbery. Shanahan subsequently filed a motion to reduce his sentence pursuant to Idaho Criminal Rule 35. The court denied the motion.

         On his first appeal, Shanahan argued that the district court abused its discretion in declining to sentence him as a juvenile, that his sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and that even if his sentences were not cruel and unusual, they were an abuse of discretion. The Court of Appeals rejected all of Shanahan's arguments and affirmed the district court's decision. See State v. Shanahan, 133 Idaho 896, 994 P.2d 1059 (Ct. App. 1999).

         In June 2017, over twenty years after he was originally sentenced, Shanahan filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence pursuant to I.C.R. 35(a) on the basis that his sentence violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in light of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (as made retroactive by Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718, 734 (2016)), which held that sentencing courts must consider a juvenile's youth and its attendant characteristics before imposing a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The State objected on the basis that Miller does not apply because Shanahan was not sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, or its functional equivalent. On November 28, 2017, the district court issued a memorandum decision denying Shanahan's motion. The court noted that, to the extent that the sentencing court considered Shanahan's age and mental health as factors weighing against imposing the death penalty, such consideration was improper, as Shanahan was not eligible for the death penalty as a minor. Nonetheless, it denied the motion on the basis that, even if Miller applies to Shanahan's indeterminate life sentence, the sentencing court heard and properly considered testimony regarding Shanahan's age and mental health before sentencing him. Shanahan timely appealed.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Idaho Criminal Rule 35(a) "is a narrow rule which allows a trial court to correct an illegal sentence or to correct a sentence imposed in an illegal manner" at any time. State v. Draper, 151 Idaho 576, 601, 261 P.3d 853, 878 (2011). "Generally, whether a sentence is illegal or whether it was imposed in an illegal manner is a question of law, over which we exercise free review." Id.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         This appeal presents an issue of first impression in Idaho: whether a juvenile offender convicted of homicide who receives an indeterminate life sentence with a long fixed term is entitled to a sentencing hearing at which the factors enunciated in Miller are considered. This appeal also presents the issue of whether such a sentence, independent of Miller, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Shanahan argues that since he was sentenced in 1997, material changes in constitutional law concerning the sentencing of juvenile offenders render the fixed portion of his sentence unconstitutional. He also argues that, pursuant to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, he is entitled to a hearing at which his youth and its attendant characteristics are considered when sentencing him.

         In Miller, the Supreme Court considered whether state sentencing schemes that mandate life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 567 U.S. at 489. After reflecting upon a line of cases in which the Court determined that "children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing," the Court concluded that, "[b]ecause juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform . . . 'they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.'" Id. at 471 (quoting Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 68 (2010)). Specifically, the Court stated:

Graham, Roper, and our individualized sentencing decisions make clear that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles. By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory-sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Id. at 489. Accordingly, before sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole, Miller requires consideration of the defendant's "chronological age and its hallmark features- among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences." Id. at 477. In addition, a sentencing court must "tak[e] into account the family and home environment that surrounds [the juvenile] . . . from which he cannot usually extricate himself-no matter how brutal or dysfunctional," as well as "the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him." Id. The Supreme Court also lamented the fact that mandatory life without parole sentencing schemes "ignore[] that [the juvenile] might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth-for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys." Id. at 477-78.

         However, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to impose a categorical bar on life-without- parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide. Id. at 479. Rather, Miller only requires a sentencing court to consider the juvenile's "youth and attendant characteristics" before sentencing him to life without the possibility of parole. Id. at 483. Yet, in this regard, the Court also noted that:

[G]iven all we have said . . . about children's diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon. That is especially so because of the great difficulty we noted in Roper and Graham of distinguishing at this early age between "the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption." Roper, 543 U.S. at 573; Graham, 560 U.S. at 68. Although we do not foreclose a sentencer's ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.

Id. at 479-80.

         Miller also clarified that if a juvenile's crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity," '[a] State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom,' but must provide 'some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and ...


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