Youths Serving De Facto Life Sentences May Get Relief

, Daily Business Review

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4th DCA

A sliver of relief has been created for some Florida inmates given de facto life sentence for crimes committed as juveniles in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing them.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday that juveniles charged with a first-degree felony from Oct. 1, 1983, to July 1, 1995, cannot be sentenced to more than 40 years.

Keith L. Peters was 16 in 1989 when he was charged as an adult in St. Lucie County with six counts of armed robbery, a count of attempted armed robbery and two counts of auto theft. He was accused of robbing seven people at gunpoint over a six-week period.

In 1991, he was given two life sentences for two armed robberies plus consecutive 99-year sentences for the other four armed robberies. He also was given a 15-year sentence for attempted robbery and five years each for the auto theft counts, all to be served consecutively. The original sentencing judge told Peters his intention was "to make sure you never get out of jail."

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that juveniles accused of felonies that did not involve murder could not be given live sentences without the possibility of parole.

However, state district courts have found Graham applies only to actual life sentences. Challenges to other sentences that could leave an inmate in prison until death have been rejected. These de facto life sentences are under review by the Florida Supreme Court.

Peters had a hearing to correct his two life sentences. A new circuit judge, James McCann, heard the case. In 2011, McCann sentenced Peters to six concurrent terms of 99 years on the armed robberies.

Fourth District Judge Robert Gross found the new sentence still violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment under Graham.

Until 1995, the maximum penalty for a first-degree felony was harsher than for a life felony. The laws under which Peters was sentenced stated a life felony could be life or no more than 40 years. But sentencing on first-degree felonies allowed a term "not exceeding life imprisonment."

Since 1995, the Legislature changed life felony sentences to life or a term of years not exceeding life.

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