Gavel, scales of justice and law books

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit on Tuesday ruled that a juvenile’s 112-year sentence was constitutional in light of a U.S. Supreme Court case forbidding life sentences without parole for most youthful offenders.

Atorrus Rainer at age 17 was convicted on multiple counts of attempted first-degree murder and first-degree assault, as well as burglary and robbery. A state district court gave him 224 years in prison. Upon appeal to the Colorado Court of Appeals, the sentence was revised down to 112 years.

After Rainer’s appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Graham v. Florida that the Constitution prohibits life without possibility of parole for most crimes committed by juveniles. Rainer subsequently argued that his sentence was unconstitutional. A state district court decided that that Supreme Court’s ruling specifically applied to life sentences, not simply long sentences, and that the decision did not apply retroactively.

The Colorado Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, concluding that Rainer required “a meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Finally, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed course yet again, deciding that Rainer’s punishment was constitutional.

Circuit Judge Robert E. Bacharach, writing for the three-judge federal panel, agreed with the state Supreme Court's finding.

Graham’s holding is limited to offenders convicted of non-homicide offenses,” he wrote. Rainer’s attempted murder conviction, therefore, made him eligible to seek relief. However, the court was not persuaded that Rainer would spend the rest of his life in prison without possibility of rehabilitation.

Bacharach pointed to Colorado’s Juveniles Convicted as Adults Program, which could result in Rainer’s release as early as age 42. If denied, Rainer could re-apply every three years afterward. Rainer contended that this remedy was inadequate because the governor could choose to deny his parole application. The court, however, felt that there were sufficient limitations on the governor’s discretion and ample opportunity to be accepted into the program.

“A 2019 status report shows that seventeen of the JCAP applications (42%) were approved. Twenty-three (58%) were rejected,” Bacharach wrote. ”The report suggests that the nature of the offense rarely bars participation in JCAP. We thus have little reason to expect rejection of Mr. Rainer’s application for JCAP based on the seriousness of the offense or impact on the victims.”

Although Rainer contended that the state denies 90% of first-time parole applications, Bacharach countered that there was not enough detail to know how juveniles fared.

The case is Atorrus Rainer v. Matthew Hansen, et al.

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