April 2, 2019
From Greenville County R. Scott Sprouse, Circuit Court Judge
Appellate Defender Victor R. Seeger, of Columbia, for
Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Deputy Attorney General
Donald J. Zelenka, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General
Melody J. Brown and Assistant Attorney General Sherrie
Butterbaugh, all of Columbia; and Solicitor William Walter
Wilkins, III, of Greenville, all for Respondent.
criminal appeal, Michael Jay Finley appeals the circuit
court's denial of his pro se motion to reconsider his
sentence pursuant to Aiken v. Byars, 410 S.C. 534,
765 S.E.2d 572 (2014). Finley argues his mandatory sentence
of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole upon the
service of thirty years' imprisonment is functionally
equivalent to a sentence of life imprisonment without the
possibility of parole (LWOP), which violates the Eighth
Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.
February 1992, a Greenville County grand jury indicted Finley
for murder, first-degree burglary, first-degree arson, and
armed robbery for his involvement in the death of
eighty-year-old James Brockman (Victim). Finley was seventeen
years old at the time of Victim's murder. On February 25,
1993, Finley pled guilty as indicted. At the plea hearing,
the State provided the following recitation of the facts.
to the night of Victim's murder, Finley and his
co-defendant, who both lived in Spartanburg, formed a plan to
kill Victim for his money. After making preparations, the
pair drove to Victim's home in Greenville County on the
night of May 6, 1990. To gain entry to the home, Finley and
his co-defendant asked Victim if they could use his phone
because they were experiencing car trouble. Once inside, the
pair robbed Victim at gunpoint, ransacking the home in the
process. Before fleeing the scene, Finley bound Victim's
legs and arms with electrical wire and laid him on his bed.
Finley then gagged Victim, placing a handkerchief in his
mouth and securing it with a necktie. Once Victim was
sufficiently secured, Finley and his co-defendant placed a
pillowcase over Victim's head and proceeded to strangle
him with another necktie until he lost consciousness. The
pair then used the barrel of a shotgun to repeatedly bludgeon
Victim's head. Believing Victim was dead, Finley and his
co-defendant poured gasoline around the house and set
multiple fires before leaving the scene in Victim's car.
Police apprehended Finley and his co-defendant a few days
later. Finley ultimately confessed to the crimes and provided
a written statement to police. Victim's autopsy showed
extreme blunt force trauma to the head and neck, first and
second degree burns, and asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation
as the cause of death, which suggested Victim was still alive
during the fire.
April 22, 1993, the circuit court sentenced Finley to
concurrent life sentences for murder and first-degree
burglary with parole eligibility after the service of thirty
years' imprisonment. The court additionally sentenced Finley
to twenty-five years' imprisonment for the charges of
first-degree arson and armed robbery, each sentence to be
served consecutively to Finley's sentence for murder.
March 17, 2016, Finley filed a pro se motion for resentencing
pursuant to Byars. The circuit court held a hearing
on the motion on October 14, 2016. At the hearing, Finley
argued his sentence constituted a de facto life sentence and,
therefore, violated the Eighth Amendment. Specifically,
Finley asserted that even though his sentence afforded him
parole eligibility after the service of thirty years'
imprisonment, the South Carolina parole process did not
provide a meaningful opportunity for release because he would
not have counsel at the parole hearings. The State argued
Finley was not within the class of offenders entitled to
reconsideration pursuant to Byars and Miller v.
Alabama because he did not receive a juvenile LWOP
sentence. The State maintained Finley would have a meaningful
opportunity for release and to present mitigating evidence,
such as relevant factors of youth, at his first parole
hearing in 2022 and at any potential future parole
hearings. The State further asserted Finley could be
appointed counsel for his parole hearings upon request.
November 28, 2016, the circuit court issued an order denying
Finley's motion for resentencing, finding Finley was
"not a member of the class of offenders entitled to
resentencing." The court explained, Miller and
Byars "rest on the principle that life without
the possibility of parole is the harshest of all penalties
for a juvenile offender" and are "unequivocal in
that the remedy they provide is only available to juveniles
sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for
homicide." The court found Finley's sentence did not
amount to a de facto LWOP sentence because he would become
parole eligible upon the service of thirty years'
imprisonment. Therefore, the circuit court concluded
Finley did have a meaningful opportunity for release that was
not available to the class of juvenile offenders comprehended
in Miller and Byars. This appeal followed.
considering whether a sentence violates the Eighth
Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments,
the appellate court's standard of review extends only to
the correction of errors of law. See State v. Perez,
423 S.C. 491, 496, 816 S.E.2d 550, 553 (2018). Therefore,
this court will not disturb the circuit court's findings
absent a manifest abuse of discretion. Id. An abuse
of discretion occurs when the circuit court's finding is
based on an error of law or grounded in factual ...