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State v. Slocumb

Supreme Court of South Carolina

April 3, 2019

State of South Carolina, Respondent,
Conrad Lamont Slocumb, Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2015-002031

          Heard December 12, 2018


          Tara Dawn Shurling, of the Law Office of Tara Dawn Shurling, P.A., of Columbia, for Petitioner.

          Attorney General Alan Wilson and Assistant Attorney General Mark R. Farthing, both of Columbia, for Respondent.

          Chief Appellate Defender Robert Micheal Dudek, Appellate Defender Susan Barber Hackett, Appellate Defender Laura Ruth Baer, all of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae, South Carolina Division of Appellate Defense.

          John H. Blume, III and Lindsey Sterling Vann, both of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae, Justice 360 & Cornell Juvenile Justice Project.

          Executive Director James Hugh Ryan, III, of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae, South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense.

          Joseph M. McCulloch, Jr., of Columbia, and Seth P. Waxman, of Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae, The South Carolina State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

          Alexandra V.B. Gordon, Aidan Synnott, Anne O'Toole and Agbeko C. Petty, all of New York, NY, for Amicus Curiae, South Carolina Public Defender Association and South Carolina Criminal Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.


         At the age of thirteen, petitioner Conrad Slocumb kidnapped and sexually assaulted a teacher before shooting her in the face and head five times and leaving her for dead. Three years later, following his guilty plea for the first set of crimes, he escaped from custody and raped and robbed another woman in a brutal manner before being apprehended again. For these two sets of crimes, Slocumb received an aggregate 130-year sentence due to the individual sentences being run consecutively.

         Following rounds of direct appeals and collateral proceedings, Slocumb now contends an aggregate 130-year sentence for multiple offenses committed on multiple dates violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as extrapolated from the principles set forth in the United States Supreme Court's (Supreme Court) decisions in Graham v. Florida[1] and Miller v. Alabama, [2] among others. We acknowledge ostensible merit in Slocumb's argument, for it is arguably a reasonable extension of Graham and Miller. Yet precedent dictates that only the Supreme Court may extend and enlarge the protections guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Once the Supreme Court has drawn a line in the sand, the authority to redraw that line and broaden federal constitutional protections is limited to our nation's highest court. Because the decision to expand the reach and protections of the Eighth Amendment lies exclusively with the Supreme Court, we are constrained to deny Slocumb relief.


         In 1992, when he was thirteen years old, Slocumb accosted a high school teacher in the school parking lot and forced her into her car at gunpoint, directing her to drive to a wooded area. Slocumb unsuccessfully attempted to force the teacher into the woods before grabbing her, squeezing her breast, and digitally penetrating her vagina through her clothing. He then shot the teacher in the face and head five times and drove off in her car, leaving her on the side of the road. Miraculously, the teacher survived and identified Slocumb as the perpetrator. Eventually, Slocumb pled guilty to criminal sexual conduct in the first degree (CSC-1st) in exchange for the remaining charges being nol prossed and was sentenced to thirty years' imprisonment.

         Three years later, while returning from an off-site medical visit, Slocumb escaped from custody for a total of forty-five minutes. In the short time he was free, he ran to a nearby apartment complex, located a lone woman, and forced his way into her apartment. Once inside, Slocumb claimed he had a gun and demanded the woman turn over her car keys, money, jewelry, cigarettes, beer, and a change of clothes. After the woman complied with his demands, Slocumb forced her to undress, said "I'm going to have some sex," and, after reminding her he was armed, proceeded to rape her. The woman nonetheless continued to resist, whereupon Slocumb forced her to stand and touch her toes as he raped her from behind. After the rape, Slocumb left the apartment and was apprehended in the parking lot by law enforcement.

         After a jury trial and multiple rounds of direct appeals, post-conviction relief applications, and resentencing hearings, Slocumb was ultimately sentenced to life without parole for burglary in the first degree, thirty years' imprisonment for CSC-1st, thirty years' imprisonment for kidnapping, fifteen years' imprisonment for robbery (as a lesser-included offense to armed robbery), and five years' imprisonment for escape, the sentences to be served consecutively.

         Subsequently, in 2010, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Graham v. Florida, in which it held the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited courts from sentencing a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide offense to life without parole. 560 U.S. at 82. Slocumb immediately filed a federal habeas action, requesting his life sentence for burglary be vacated pursuant to Graham. The federal district court granted him relief and remanded the case to the circuit court for resentencing on the burglary charge alone.

         On remand, Slocumb requested the circuit court not only resentence him on the burglary charge, but also vacate the remaining eighty-year aggregate sentence for the other crimes and resentence him on all of the charges in accordance "with the spirit and intent of" Graham and Miller. Acknowledging that a de facto life sentence[3] is not expressly prohibited under Graham or Miller, Slocumb invited the circuit court to follow the spirit of Graham and Miller and find his aggregate term-of-years sentence was impermissible under the Eighth Amendment. In addition, Slocumb asserted even if his new burglary sentence were run concurrently to his eighty-year aggregate sentence for the remaining crimes, the eighty-year sentence would also not provide him with a meaningful opportunity for release, as specified in Graham, because he would be incarcerated long past his projected life expectancy.

         In response, the State stressed Graham specifically allowed a state to keep a juvenile offender incarcerated for his entire natural life span when the offender failed to demonstrate maturity or rehabilitation. The State informed the circuit court that it had been contacted by the Department of Corrections (DOC) and told that Slocumb, as an adult in his thirties, was an enormous "security risk" with a "horrible" behavioral record, including 218 infractions over a sixteen-year period for actions such as attacking corrections workers, possession of a weapon, and mutilation. According to the State, the DOC's unsolicited contact was the first time in at least twenty-three years the agency had felt it necessary to specifically advise the State of the potential security risk posed by an inmate.[4] The State also informed the circuit court Slocumb had failed to complete any educational courses or enroll in any rehabilitative programs while incarcerated.[5] The State argued Slocumb's poor disciplinary record and failure to attempt to rehabilitate himself fell squarely within Graham's language allowing a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide offense to be imprisoned for his natural life span. Stated differently, Slocumb's adult prison record of continuing impulsivity and violence belies the general premises of youth articulated in Roper v. Simmons, [6] Graham, and Miller.

         Ultimately, the circuit court found the remand instructions from the federal court encompassed only Slocumb's burglary charge. The court then resentenced Slocumb to fifty years' imprisonment on the burglary charge, the sentence to be run consecutively to the eighty years for the remaining charges, resulting in Slocumb facing a 130-year aggregate sentence.

         Slocumb appealed, arguing the sentence violated the spirit and letter of Graham, but the court of appeals affirmed. Slocumb then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with this Court. Because the court of appeals considered only the sentence for burglary in accordance with the limited remand instructions from the federal district court, we denied the petition. However, because the certiorari petition sought review of the entire 130-year sentence, we observed that the constitutionality of the length of Slocumb's aggregate sentence in light of Graham was more appropriately raised to this Court by way of a petition for a writ of certiorari in our original jurisdiction. As a result, Slocumb refiled a petition for a writ of certiorari in the Court's original jurisdiction to address whether an aggregate sentence imposed for multiple nonhomicide offenses committed while Slocumb was a juvenile was the equivalent of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, and if so, whether the aggregate sentence violated the Eighth Amendment as interpreted by Graham. We granted the petition.


         In the past fourteen years, the Supreme Court issued three decisions concerning juvenile sentencing practices: Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama. We begin our analysis with a review of this trilogy of cases.


         In the earliest of its three recent decisions, Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court held juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to death if they were under the age of eighteen at the time they committed their crimes. 543 U.S. at 568, 578. Underlying the Supreme Court's holding was its belief that juveniles were fundamentally different from adults, in that they (1) exhibited a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, resulting in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions; (2) were more susceptible to negative outside influences such as peer pressure; and (3) had personality traits that were more transitory and less fixed than adults. Id. at 569-70. Consequently, as the Supreme Court explained, a juvenile's irresponsible conduct was not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult and less indicative of an irretrievably depraved character. Id. The Supreme Court concluded that as a result of juveniles' diminished culpability, the penological justifications for the death penalty applied to them with less force than to adults, and therefore the death penalty was an ineffective and inappropriate punishment for juvenile offenders. Id. at 571.


         Subsequently, in Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court expanded upon its rationale in Roper and held the Eighth Amendment prohibited "the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide." 560 U.S. at 82. As a result of the differences between juveniles and adults outlined in Roper and the perceived moral distinction between homicide and nonhomicide crimes, the Supreme Court concluded that, as compared to an adult murderer, a juvenile nonhomicide offender who did not kill or intend to kill had a "twice diminished moral culpability." Id. at 69.

         Turning to the appropriate punishment for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, the Supreme Court noted a life without parole sentence was the second most severe penalty permitted by law and shared key features with a death sentence "that are shared by no other sentence," most importantly, the certainty the defendant will die in prison. Id. at 69-70. The Supreme Court discounted the penological justifications-retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation-for sentencing a juvenile nonhomicide offender to life without parole because juveniles have diminished culpability, are less likely to take possible punishment into consideration when making decisions, and cannot be reliably classified as incorrigible at a young age. Id. at 71-75.

         As a result, the Supreme Court held "that for a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide[, ] the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentence of life without parole." Id. at 74 (emphasis added). Further,

A State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime. What the State must do, however, is give defendants . . . some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. It is for the State, in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance. It bears emphasis, however, that while the Eighth Amendment prohibits a State from imposing a life without parole sentence on a juvenile nonhomicide offender, it does not require the State to release that offender during his natural life. Those who commit truly horrifying crimes as juveniles may turn out to be irredeemable, and thus deserving of incarceration for the duration of their lives. The Eighth Amendment does not foreclose the possibility that persons convicted of nonhomicide crimes committed before adulthood will remain behind bars for life. It does prohibit States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society.

Id. at 75 (emphasis added).

         In dissent, Justice Alito clarified his understanding of the majority's holding, stating that "[n]othing in the Court's opinion affects the imposition of a sentence to a term of years without the possibility of parole. Indeed, petitioner conceded at oral argument that a sentence of as much as 40 years without the possibility of parole 'probably' would be constitutional." Id. at 124 (Alito, J., dissenting) (emphasis added); id. at 123 n.13 (Thomas, J., dissenting) (making a similar observation). The majority in no way acknowledged or responded to either Justice Alito's or Justice Thomas's statements that the majority holding did not apply to juvenile offenders serving lengthy term-of-years sentences.


         Finally, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment forbade states from imposing on juveniles mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for homicide offenses. 567 U.S. at 489. The Supreme Court reiterated that Roper and Graham stood for the principle that juveniles are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes due to their diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform. Id. at 471-72. Relevant to this appeal, the Supreme Court stated:

Graham's flat ban on life without parole applied only to nonhomicide crimes, and the Court took care to distinguish those offenses from murder, based on both moral culpability and consequential harm. But none of what it said about children-about their distinctive (and transitory) mental traits and environmental vulnerabilities-is crime-specific. . . . So Graham's reasoning implicates any life-without-parole sentence imposed on a juvenile, even as its categorical bar relates only to nonhomicide offenses.

Id. at 473 (bold emphasis added) (internal citations omitted).[7]


         At his resentencing hearing following the grant of federal habeas relief, Slocumb conceded to the circuit court that Graham applied only to de jure life sentences. Nonetheless, he now argues the general rationale underlying Graham requires us to extend its protections to juveniles serving de facto life sentences as well. We agree Graham's explicit holding applies to de jure life sentences alone, and its rationale may implicate de facto life sentences. See Miller, 567 U.S. at 473 ("Graham's reasoning implicates any life-without-parole sentence imposed on a juvenile . . . ."). Nonetheless, several factors caution us against extending the reach of Graham to provide Slocumb with relief without further input from the Supreme Court.


         First, a long line of Supreme Court precedent prohibits us from extending federal constitutional protections beyond the boundaries the Supreme Court itself has set. See, e.g., Arkansas v. Sullivan, 532 U.S. 769, 772 (2001) (per curiam) ("The Arkansas Supreme Court's alternative holding, that it may interpret the United States Constitution to provide greater protection than this Court's own federal constitutional precedents provide, is foreclosed by Oregon v. Hass, 420 U.S. 714 (1975)."); Hass, 420 U.S. at 719 & n.4 (stating that while "a State is free as a matter of its own law to impose greater restrictions on police activity than those this Court holds to be necessary upon federal constitutional standards," it "may not impose such greater restrictions as a matter of federal constitutional law when this Court specifically refrains from imposing them"). As a result, we ...

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