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State v. Finley

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

July 17, 2019

The State, Respondent,
v.
Michael Jay Finley, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2016-002480

          Heard April 2, 2019

          Appeal From Greenville County R. Scott Sprouse, Circuit Court Judge

          Appellate Defender Victor R. Seeger, of Columbia, for Appellant.

          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.

          WILLIAMS, J.

         In this 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. We affirm.

         FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In 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.

         Prior 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.[1] 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.

         On 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.[2] 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.

         On March 17, 2016, Finley filed a pro se motion for resentencing pursuant to Byars.[3] 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[4] 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.[5] The State further asserted Finley could be appointed counsel for his parole hearings upon request.

         On 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.[6] 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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When 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 ...


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