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Virginia v. LeBlanc

United States Supreme Court

June 12, 2017

VIRGINIA, ET AL.
v.
DENNIS LeBLANC

         ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

          PER CURIAM.

         Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), a state prisoner is eligible for federal habeas relief if the underlying state court merits ruling was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law" as determined by this Court. 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1). In this case, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that this demanding standard was met by a Virginia court's application of Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). The question presented is whether the Court of Appeals erred in concluding that the state court's ruling involved an unreasonable application of this Court's holding.

         I

         On July 6, 1999, respondent Dennis LeBlanc raped a 62-year-old woman. He was 16 at the time. In 2003, a state trial court sentenced him to life in prison for his crimes. In the 1990's, Virginia had, for felony offenders, abolished parole that followed a traditional framework. See Va. Code Ann. §53.1-165.1 (2013). As a form of replacement, Virginia enacted its so-called "geriatric release" program, which allows older inmates to receive conditional release under some circumstances. LeBlanc v. Mathena, 841 F.3d 256, 261 (CA4 2016) (citing Va. Code Ann. §53.1-40.01).

         Seven years after respondent was sentenced, this Court decided Graham v. Florida. Graham established that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses from being sentenced to life with- out parole. While a "State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime, " the Court held, it must "give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." 540 U.S., at 75. The Court in Graham left it to the States, "in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance" with the Graham rule. Ibid.

         Respondent later filed a motion in state trial court-the Virginia Beach Circuit Court-seeking to vacate his sentence in light of Graham. The trial court denied the motion. In so doing, it relied on the Supreme Court of Virginia's decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, 281 Va. 248, 704 S.E.2d 386 (2011). The Angel court held that Virginia's geriatric release program satisfies Graham's requirement of parole for juvenile offenders. The statute establishing the program provides:

"Any person serving a sentence imposed upon a conviction for a felony offense . . . (i) who has reached the age of sixty-five or older and who has served at least five years of the sentence imposed or (ii) who has reached the age of sixty or older and who has served at least ten years of the sentence imposed may petition the Parole Board for conditional release." §53.1-40.01.

         The Angel court explained that "[t]he regulations for conditional release under this statute provide that if the prisoner meets the qualifications for consideration contained in the statute, the factors used in the normal parole consideration process apply to conditional release decisions under this statute." 281 Va., at 275, 704 S.E.2d, at 402. The geriatric release program thus complied with Graham, the Angel court held, because it provided "the meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation required by the Eighth Amendment." 281 Va., at 275, 704 S.E.2d, at 402 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Virginia Supreme Court, in reviewing the trial court's ruling in the instant case, summarily denied respondent's requests for appeal and for rehearing.

         In 2012, respondent filed a federal habeas petition in the Eastern District of Virginia pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2254. A Magistrate Judge recommended dismissing the petition, but the District Court disagreed and granted the writ. The District Court explained that "there is no possibility that fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts wit[h] the dictates of Graham." LeBlanc v. Mathena, 2015 WL 4042175, *18 (July 1, 2015).

         A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that the state trial court's ruling was an unreasonable application of Graham. 841 F.3d, at 259-260. In the panel majority's view, Virginia's geriatric release program did not provide a meaningful opportunity for juvenile nonhomicide offenders to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

         Judge Niemeyer dissented. He criticized the majority for "fail[ing] to respect, in any meaningful way, the deference Congress requires federal courts to give state court decisions on postconviction review." Id., at 275.

         The Commonwealth of Virginia petitioned for certiorari. The petition is now granted, and the judgment is reversed: The Virginia trial court ...


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