Court holds that de facto life sentence rule did not apply to 23-year-old defendant sentenced to 110 years

The appellant in People v. Suggs, 2019 IL App (2d) 170632 appealed the trial court’s order summarily dismissing his pro se post-conviction petition, which argued that the prohibition against the imposition of de facto life sentences should be extended to cover “young adult offenders” who are no longer juveniles. The appellate court affirmed.

Montago Suggs was originally charged with and convicted of first degree murder, attempted murder, and attempted armed robbery with a firearm. At sentencing, the trial court noted Suggs’ extensive juvenile and adult criminal histories, including multiple violations of probation, threats on Department of Corrections staff and personnel, and various kinds of criminal theft. Id. at ¶ 7-11. In allocution, Suggs apologized to the victim and families, yet denied responsibility for the charges for which he was convicted. Id. at ¶ 11.

The State recommended a life sentence for the murder conviction and a 45-year term for the attempted murder conviction. Id. at ¶ 12. Defense counsel argued in mitigation that Suggs was young when the offenses were committed and that he had accepted responsibility for his previous crimes by pleading guilty in all of his juvenile and adult cases. No sentence length recommendation was made by defense counsel. In imposing sentence, the trial court stated that it had considered all of the evidence introduced at each trial, the PSI, the victim impact statements, defendant’s statements in allocution, the parties’ arguments, the statutory and non-statutory factors in mitigation and aggravation, the cost of incarceration, and the defendant’s rehabilitative potential, before imposing a sentence of 80 years for the first degree murder and concurrent 30-year and 28-year sentences for the attempted murder and attempted armed robbery convictions. Id. at ¶ 13-19. In total, Suggs was sentenced to 110 years imprisonment.

Suggs filed a motion to reconsider the sentence, which was denied by the trial court. Id. at ¶ 20. On direct appeal, Suggs challenged his convictions based on the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress a custodial statement and challenging a fee assessed against him as part of his sentence. Id. at ¶ 21. The convictions were affirmed by the appellate court and the fee was vacated.

Suggs then filed a pro se post-conviction petition, arguing that his aggregate 110-year sentence violated the eighth amendment, and, as a de facto life sentence, failed to provide him a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on maturity and rehabilitation. Id. at ¶ 22. The trial court summarily dismissed the petition, holding that the court was both within statutory limits in sentencing and that such claims were barred by res judicata for Suggs’ failure to raise the sentencing issues on direct appeal. Id. at ¶ 22. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Suggs argued that, in light of recent scientific developments and understanding of the neurophysiological and mental development of juveniles and young adults, the prohibition against de facto mandatory life sentences should be extended to young adults who, while no longer being juveniles, are also not fully mature adults. Id. at ¶ 25. Additionally, Suggs argued that the court insufficiently considered the transient qualities of youth when imposing his sentence and deprived him of the opportunity to achieve rehabilitation.

The court noted that Suggs was 23 years old at the time he committed the offenses for which he was convicted. The court acknowledged that the Illinois Supreme Court has held that all juvenile life sentences, mandatory or discretionary, are unconstitutional unless the trial court considers the offender’s youth and attendant characteristics. Id. at ¶ 32. In his appeal, Suggs argued that the trend, legally and scientifically, was to give the signature qualities of youth additional weight in sentencing, which should also apply in Suggs’ case.

However, while acknowledging the trends, the appellate court noted that Suggs faced “the significant hurdle that no court has yet applied the RoperGrahamMiller trio to an offender of defendant’s age, 23 years at the time of the offense.” Id. at ¶ 33. Illinois courts have routinely examined and (in specific instances) applied the expansion of those protections to offenders under 21 years old, but courts have not considered the same for those older than 21 years old. Id. at ¶ 34-35.

Moreover, in the specific context of Suggs’ case, the court noted that “few if any” of the significant qualities of youth that would be used to mitigate his sentence were evident in the planning and execution of the offenses he committed. Id. at ¶ 36. Specifically, the appellate court found that the careful planning of the crimes by Suggs were “at odds with a young person’s tendency not to appreciate the risks and consequences” of criminal behavior. Id. at ¶ 36. Ultimately, the appellate court held that the record contained ample evidence of Suggs’ maturity and did not support treating him as a juvenile instead of as an adult. As such, the court rejected the contention that appellant’s sentence did not comport with constitutional strictures. Id. at ¶ 37. The court applied the same thinking to their rejection of appellant’s challenge to the rehabilitation clause of the Illinois Constitution. Id. at ¶ 39-42.

The Appellate Court of Illinois Second District affirmed the judgement of the Circuit Court of Lake County.

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