A state appeals panel split over a constitutional case against a mandatory firearm sentence enhancement imposed upon a juvenile.
The 3rd District Appellate Court majority on April 3 found a post-conviction challenge to a 20-year sentence enhancement can move forward, writing such a penalty for minors “no longer reflects Illinois’s evolving standard of decency.”
Justice Tom M. Lytton authored a nine-page opinion, noting other appellate courts and recent state law updates suggest judges can disregard such penalties when considering a defendant’s youth.
He cited a 1st District decision from 2016, People v. Aikens, in which the court held a 20-year enhancement was unconstitutional as applied to a juvenile, as well as a 5th District decision from 2018, People v. Barnes, in which the court came to a similar conclusion about a 15-year enhancement.
“Likewise, applying the 20-year mandatory firearm enhancement to defendant in this case violates the proportionate penalties clause of our state constitution,” Lytton wrote.
“As in Barnes and Aikens, the juvenile status of defendant at the time of the offense and the circumstance surrounding the incident should have some relevance in determining whether to impose the mandatory 20-year firearm enhancement.”
The case stemmed from an October 2006 shooting in which Robert B. Womack, then 16, was convicted of attempted murder, aggravated battery with a firearm and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. He was sentenced to 18 years for the first charge, with the additional 20 years tacked on as required by law for discharging a firearm during the crime.
He filed an initial postconviction plea in 2009, asserting the sentence violated due process, and he was denied effective counsel. That plea was ultimately rejected.
He asked for leave to file a successive postconviction petition in 2016, which was also denied. On appeal, he argued he satisfied procedural requirements to do so under the Post-Conviction Hearings Act by showing his 20-year enhancement violates the Illinois Constitution’s proportionate penalties clause, as applied under Miller v. Alabama.
That clause states that “[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.”
Such violations occur when a penalty is cruel, degrading, or so disproportionate to the offense that it would “shock the moral sense of the community.” That description isn’t directly defined because communities’ “moral sense” evolves over time, so the court should consider the gravity offense in connection with the severity of the punishment mandated in the context of that evolving sense of decency, Lytton wrote.
The majority cited Aikens and Barnes, along with 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-105(b). The panel here cited to the Aikens summary of that statute, which noted that, as of January 2016 when it was enacted, “when a person commits an offense and is under 18 years of age at the time of the offense, there are additional factors the trial court must consider in sentencing that offender, including age, impetuosity, and level of maturity, and the trial court ‘may, in its discretion, decline to impose any otherwise applicable sentencing enhancement based upon firearm possession.’”
The majority wrote that the case also implicated Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2012 that found mandatory life sentences without parole for kids violate the Eighth Amendment, because it implicated youth.
The shooting stemmed from a dispute in which the victim, who was paralyzed after the incident, and defendant had engaged in an argument right beforehand. Hence, the juvenile status of the defendant should be relevant to consideration of the enhancement, Lytton wrote.
“This is particularly true where, as here, a tense exchange occurred between the victim and defendant that resulted in the impulsive and reckless decision-making behavior to which young minds are more susceptible,” the majority stated.
Finally, the justices wrote that Womack’s claims satisfied the “cause and prejudice” test for advancing successive claims under the Post-Conviction Act. The law only contemplates one petition, and a failure to advance a denial of constitutional rights typically results in waiving the claim, Lytton wrote.
However, if a defendant can show cause for not raising such a claim initially, as well as advance arguments that such an omission prejudiced the first petition enough that it violated due process, then leave can be granted to file another post-conviction claim.
Lytton, along with Justice Mary W. McDade, wrote that he satisfied the cause prong because Aikens and Barnes had not been decided before his first petition.
“He also satisfied the prejudice prong by sufficiently alleging that the mandatory 20-year firearm enhancement is unconstitutional, as applied to him, because it precluded adequate consideration of his youth, nonexistent criminal record, and other mitigating factors,” the two justices concluded.
Justice Daniel L. Schmidt authored a six-page dissent, writing among other things that Womack could not succeed on a Miller claim because that case and its progeny only apply to defendants subject to life, mandatory or discretionary, natural or de facto — 40 years or more, under the Illinois Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in People v. Buffer.
Womack got a total of 38 years in prison, Schmidt wrote, and must serve 85% of it, or, 32 years.
“The Miller decision did not prohibit all mandatory penalties for juveniles, only the ‘harshest possible’ when a sentencing court is precluded from considering mitigating factors,” he added. “Defendant’s mandatory 20-year firearm enhancement pales in comparison to the ‘harshest possible’ or ‘most severe’ of criminal penalties, e.g., the death penalty or life without parole.”
He also wrote that Womack should not have been deemed to pass the cause-and-prejudice test, noting the Aikens and Barnes cases weren’t necessary for him to advance his claims.
“In addition to my belief that both cases were wrongly decided, they also fail to provide cause. Neither Aikens nor Barnes was a watershed in proportionate penalties clause jurisprudence,” the justice wrote. “To my knowledge, the proportionate penalties clause existed in 2009 when defendant filed his first postconviction petition and his youth was a matter known to all involved.”
Stephanie L. Raymond, an assistant appellate prosecutor, represented the state in the case.
Andrew Smith, an assistant appellate defender, represented Womack.
They could not be reached for comment.
The decision, People v. Robert B. Womack, 2020 IL App (3d) 170208.