In the case of Kenneth Loggins v. Thomas, No. 09-13267, 2011 WL 3903402 (11th Cir. Sept. 7, 2011), the Eleventh Circuit held that sentencing a person to life without parole for committing a homicide while under the age of 18 (a juvenile) does not violate the United States Constitution. While the 61 page opinion is lengthy, the Court dealt with some important issues.
As for the facts, a word of warning: the murder, which Loggins and several friends committed when he was 17, is quite brutal, and the Eleventh does not hold back in its description of the crime. Loggins’ original sentence of death was reversed in light of the United States Supreme Court opinion of Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (holding that it is unconstitutional to execute criminals who were under the age of 18 when they committed their crimes). After Loggins was resentenced to life without parole, he appealed that sentence, arguing that the sentence was unconstitutional. Loggins lost all his appeals in the Alabama state courts, and eventually filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus under section 2254 in Federal Court, raising the same issue. The District Court denied Loggins’ 2254 petition, and he appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
The Court’s analysis of the core issue, the constitutionality of a sentence of life without parole for the crime of homicide committed while a juvenile, begins on page 35. Although Loggins argued that there was a national and international consensus against such a sentence, the Court quickly rejected such arguments based on some interesting criminal sentencing statistics. As a Florida criminal appeals attorney, I was saddened to read, on page 45, that Florida stands out as the State that has the highest number of people sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes committed while the people were juveniles. Out of the 123 inmates imprisoned nationwide, 77 are imprisoned in Florida.
In addition to the main issue of the constitutionality of the sentence of life without parole, the Loggins opinion is also worth reading because it contains a good discussion of other issues that arise in 2254 habeas proceedings, such as the deference owed to State court decisions, whether claims were adjudicated on the merits, what constitutes clearly established federal law, and retroactivity.