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Jovan D. James v. United States

January 24, 2013

JOVAN D. JAMES, APPELLANT,
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (FEL-599-97) (Hon. Mary Ellen Abrecht, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nebeker, Senior Judge:

(Argued October 24, 2012

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, GLICKMAN, Associate Judge, and NEBEKER, Senior Judge.

Appellant, Jovan D. James, appeals from a denial of an attack on his sentence of thirty years to life imprisonment, arguing that the mandatory thirty-year minimum, D.C. Code § 22-2404 (1996 Supp.)*fn1 imposed upon him, a minor at the time of the crime, violates the Eighth Amendment as interpreted under Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010), and Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).*fn2 He asserts that even though these decisions were decided after appellant‟s conviction became final, his current challenge to his sentence is governed by these recent Supreme Court holdings. We need not decide whether the trial court should have applied those decisions retroactively, because even had the trial court done so, those decisions would not apply to appellant‟s sentence. In addition, we are not persuaded by appellant‟s contention that the sentence imposed on him was "grossly disproportionate" to his crime, a premeditated, execution-style murder of a twelve-year-old rival gang member. Thus, we affirm the trial court‟s decision.

I.

Appellant was part of a gang in an area of southeast Washington, D.C. During the fall of 1996 and into the early part of 1997, appellant‟s gang became involved in a shooting war with a rival gang from a nearby neighborhood. At some point during the shooting war, appellant, along with other former co-defendants, became particularly upset at two members of the rival gang, twelve-year-old Darryl Hall and his fourteen-year-old brother, D‟Angelo Hall. Appellant and the other members of his gang believed the Hall boys were responsible for some of the shooting, and called the Hall household to warn the young brothers to stay out of the escalating conflict.

On January 15, 1997, appellant and three others waited for the Hall brothers to leave school, where they knew the boys would be unarmed. Once they saw the boys leave the school, appellant and the others gave chase, eventually catching up with the younger Darryl Hall. Appellant and the others forced Darryl Hall into their waiting car and drove to an apartment in their neighborhood. Here, appellant retrieved a firearm and returned to the car. The group then drove a short distance away to a wooded area, where appellant walked Darryl Hall into a ravine, shot him twice, once in the back of the leg and once in the head, and returned to the car.

Appellant was charged as an adult with first-degree murder while armed, premeditated. Appellant pleaded guilty to first-degree murder while armed, premeditated, and was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of thirty years to life in prison, becoming eligible for parole only after thirty years have been served.Since he was sentenced, appellant has unsuccessfully filed several motions attacking his sentence.

Appellant began this current attack in December 2010, by filing an "Opening Brief with Appendix" that the trial court construed as a motion to correct an illegal sentence under Super. Ct. Crim. R. 35 (a). Appellant argued that his sentence of thirty years to life imprisonment was illegal in light of Roper and Graham. The trial court distinguished Roper and Graham from appellant‟s sentence, reasoning that even if they applied retroactively, appellant would not fit into either protected category as his sentence is not death (as in Roper) and his crime was homicide (unlike Graham). Finally, the trial court held that appellant‟s punishment is not grossly disproportionate to his crime, and thus does not violate the Eighth Amendment‟s prohibition on Cruel and Unusual Punishment.

Appellant filed this timely appeal.

II.

Appellant contends that the mandatory minimum of thirty years in prison required by D.C. Code § 22-2404 (1996 Supp.) violates the Eighth Amendment. He focuses primarily on the Court‟s emphasis on the mitigating factors of youth, arguing that the District‟s sentencing scheme failed to take his youth into account. However, contrary to appellant‟s argument, Roper, Graham, and Miller do not apply to his sentence. Because he does not fit into the categorical exceptions of Roper, Graham, or Miller, appellant is forced to argue that his sentence is grossly disproportionate to his crime, which he cannot succeed in doing.

The Eighth Amendment‟s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause clearly prohibits barbaric forms of punishment under all circumstances. See Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 737-38 (2002). Most of the Supreme Court‟s precedents in this area deal with punishments challenged as disproportionate to the crime. Graham, supra, 130 S. Ct. at 2021. The Court addresses the proportionality of sentences in two main contexts: cases where the Court has imposed categorical restrictions on the imposition of the death penalty and life imprisonment ...


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