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June 30, 2012

Wallace attorneys claim Supreme Court ruling affects client

The News-Review

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder applies to Dustin Michael Wallace, his attorneys claimed Tuesday.

Wallace was convicted last week of murdering a 5-year-old girl in Roseburg two years ago when he was 16. The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office says it will seek a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

The court ruled 5-4 Monday in Miller v. Alabama that automatic life sentences for juvenile murderers are unconstitutional.

Oregon law also allows for juveniles convicted of aggravated murder to be sentenced to life sentences but with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

Wallace’s attorneys argued that a true life term is the presumed sentence unless the defendant proves mitigating circumstances that warrant the lesser penalty.

Defense attorneys Laura Fine and Don Scales argued that the Supreme Court decision means the prosecution must now prove a juvenile’s crime merits the harsher sentence.

“The burden (of proof) has shifted to the state,” Scales told Douglas County Circuit Judge Randy Garrison.

Garrison had opened the hearing by remarking that the court’s decision did not appear to apply to Wallace’s case.

“I disagree, your honor,” Scales said.

Scales and Fine said they were not prepared to argue their position in detail Tuesday, but claimed the ruling meant Garrison will need additional information about similar cases before sentencing Wallace. Wallace was convicted Friday of six counts of aggravated murder and one count each of rape, sex abuse and unlawful sexual penetration for the July 9, 2010, death of 5-year-old Sahara Dwight.

Deputy District Attorney Shannon Sullivan disagreed with Wallace’s attorneys. She said Oregon Department of Justice attorneys with whom she spoke Monday indicated prosecution of state cases should continue as before.

“They told me that they see absolutely no change and to proceed as normal,” Sullivan said.

The Supreme Court decision centered around two cases involving 14-year-olds sentenced to life without parole. One involved an Alabama boy who helped beat up and set fire to the home of a 52-year-old man in 2003. In the other case, an Arkansas teen tried to rob a video store in 1999 with two older boys when one of the other teens shot and killed a store clerk.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her majority opinion that “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment ‘guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions.’ ”

University of Oregon Associate Professor Ofer Raban, who teaches constitutional law, criminal investigation and legal theory, said Tuesday that the ruling did not say anything about shifting the burden of proof in the sentencing phase from the defense to the state.

“It only mandated that the ‘offender’s youth and attendant characteristics’ be considered before such a sentence be imposed,” Raban wrote in an email. “As defendant’s team pointed out, Miller stated that given earlier Supreme Court precedents and the current holding, ‘appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.’ Whether this translates into a ‘burden of proof’ issue is debatable — and indeed that is the debate playing out in your local circuit court.”

Raban also noted that the ruling suggests the court may later find that life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional altogether — whether mandatory or not.

“Under these circumstances, it seems disingenuous to claim that Miller ‘changes nothing’ in the way Oregon should impose sentences of life without parole on juvenile offenders,” Raban wrote.

Department of Justice spokesman Tony Green said it is too early to judge how the decision will affect cases in Oregon.

“I think at this point we have not had the opportunity to fully analyze the decision and to determine what, if any, impact it would have on Oregon sentencing,” Green said Tuesday. “It’s not something you can do in 24 hours.

“It’s something that obviously is important for us to address quickly,” Green said, as it could affect not only present and future cases, but also those that have already been adjudicated.

Wallace’s sentencing hearing is expected to last two days. A date for the hearing has not been set yet, though another status check is scheduled for Aug. 6. A 60-day period has been allotted for a pre-sentencing investigation by Douglas County Parole and Probation.

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