Update: A correction was made to clarify that Daniel T. Mallon, an assistant state appellate defender, argued on behalf of the defendant.

SPRINGFIELD — A challenge from the state of Illinois to an intellectually disabled man’s vacated de facto life sentence seemed to fall short at the Illinois Supreme Court on Tuesday, even with some of the justices voicing hesitation about creating broad sentencing standards for a narrow class of defendants.

The case concerns William Coty, 56, who in 2006 received a mandatory life sentence after his second child criminal sexual assault conviction. In 2016, Cook County Circuit Judge Nicholas Ford reduced Coty’s sentence to 50 years because a 1st District Appellate Court panel had vacated it in 2014.

In 2018, on appeal, the same 1st District panel vacated the new sentence, holding it violated the proportionate penalties provision of the Illinois Constitution.

The panel also cited a lack of “procedural safeguards” outlined in two U.S. Supreme Court decisions — Atkins v. Virginia and Miller v. Alabama — that set sentencing guidelines for juveniles and claimed they could be extended to defendants with intellectual disabilities.

The high court justices, except for P. Scott Neville Jr., who was absent from oral arguments, appeared to agree with the former finding, but skeptical of the latter.

They seemed poised for a limited ruling — one that would find Coty’s 50-year sentence unconstitutional, while preserving a case-by-case framework for future sentencing appeals from defendants with intellectual disabilities.

Justice Mary Jane Theis asked if the court should apply the same juvenile sentencing structures — retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation — that were employed in Atkins and Miller to Coty’s sentence.  

Incapacitation applies to Coty because there is no evidence that he could be rehabilitated, and as a class, intellectually disabled offenders do not share a prospect for reform like juveniles do, said  Gopi Kashyap, an assistant attorney general and supervising attorney.

If a defendant is found fit at sentencing, such as Coty was, then he can be sentenced, Kashyap said.

Chief Justice Anne M. Burke asked whether there are any standards for when a person with intellectual disabilities is not culpable for murder, or any lesser offense.

People with intellectual disabilities are “always culpable,” Kashyap said. But there is a “distinction between having the capacity to commit a crime” and “whether a person has the same culpability as an average adult offender.”

Theis, shifting the argument from practical to philosophical, asked what that difference was.

“We have all sorts of ideas about insanity, all sorts of ideas about people with some types of mental illness and their relationship to the criminal justice system,” Theis said. “Why do you think those two different ideas should be separate in terms of guilt and sentencing?”

Echoing her earlier argument, Kashyap said that unlike juveniles, who can develop a sense of responsibility over time, offenders with intellectual disabilities cannot, meaning their moral culpability is less likely to change.

Kashyap also argued that the appellate court “went too far” in extending protections to Coty and in holding that there is a categorical prohibition against mandatory sentences for intellectually disabled offenders, because it evaluated a mandatory sentence that was not before it.

Daniel T. Mallon, an assistant state appellant defender, disagreed, claiming that “this is simply affording special protections to a class of offenders … who must be treated differently when it comes to sentencing,” but those protections were not granted to Coty at the resentencing trial.

Theis pushed back, asking what measure the court should use to define the class.

“Is it the group that is at a certain point of IQ, is it Down’s [syndrome], schizophrenia, bipolarism, depression?” Theis asked. “Do we have to look at the diagnosis in each case to decide this incredibly fine balance?”

Chadd said a case-by-case review with testimony from experts to determine if an offender has an intellectual disability at sentencing would be the best course.

A broader facial rule to create a pool of defendants with constitutional protections and a set of sentencing guidelines would also be reasonable and not “impose that much of a burden on trial courts,” he said.

Signaling that she prefers the latter method, Justice Rita B. Garman said that implementing a rubric for sentencing levels, similar to juvenile sentences based on age, would be a “much broader” ruling.

“We all know it is very difficult to define what is intellectual disability,” Garman said. “So it would at least require some extensive expert testimony on: Is this person intellectually disabled? To what degree are they disabled? Is there any possibility of rehabilitation?”

Chadd responded that a trial judge should follow the script in the court’s 2019 ruling, People v. Buffer, and look at “the attributes [of the intellectual disability] and give them meaningful consideration before imposing a discretionary de facto life sentence.”

In Buffer, the court held that a prison sentence of 40 years or less imposed on a juvenile convicted of murder provides “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

Justice Michael J. Burke, in his first appearance on the high court bench, said that other state supreme courts have declined to extend Miller, which Buffer relied on, to intellectually disabled offenders.

Also signaling doubt about a broad ruling, Theis said that Atkins — another case cited in Buffer — referenced a “national consensus” on the issue of de facto life sentences applied to a special class of defendants.

“It sounds like there’s not a national consensus on this issue,” she said.

This case is People v. William Coty 2020 IL 123972.