Court Affirms Virginia Court’s Application Of Juvenile Punishment Standards

In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Court held that juvenile defendants convicted of nonhomicide offenses could not be sentenced to life without parole. Virginia had already abolished parole and instead replaced it with a “geriatric release” program which allowed older inmates to receive conditional release. In Virginia v. LeBlanc, LeBlanc was sentenced to life in prison for raping a 62 year-old woman when he was 16 years of age. LeBlanc argued that his sentence violated Graham. The Virginia Supreme Court had held in Angel v. Commonwealth, 281 Va. 248 (2011) that the geriatric release program complied with the holding in Graham. LeBlanc sought relief in the federal courts under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, and the district court and Fourth Circuit held that the Virginia Supreme Court’s holding in Angel was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of,” the Graham holding, and thus was “objectively unreasonable, not merely wrong,” and thus void in effect. The Court, in a per curiam opinion, reversed, holding that because there were “reasonable arguments on both sides” as to whether the geriatric release program complied with Graham, the Virginia Supreme Court’s holding was entitled to deference under the Act. Justice Ginsburg filed a concurrence noting her understanding that the geriatric release program provided a meaningful opportunity for release as required under Graham, and could not deny release for any reason whatsoever as the Fourth Circuit believed. A link to the opinion is here.