Defendant’s natural life sentence was constitutional even though he was 20 at the time of the offense

The appellant in People v. White, 2020 IL App (5th) 170345 appealed the trial court’s order denying his motion for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition, alleging that White made a sufficient showing of cause-and-prejudice in his motion. The Fifth District Appellate Court affirmed.

Douglas White was originally charged and convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of concealment of a homicidal death related the murder of his grandmother and her friend. Id. at ¶ 4. White was sentenced to natural life imprisonment for each of the murder counts and five years’ imprisonment for the concealment of homicidal death. White’s convictions and sentences were affirmed on direct appeal. Id. at ¶ 5.

In his first collateral attack on his conviction, White filed a pro se post-conviction petition, which was summarily dismissed as frivolous and patently without merit. The appellate court affirmed. Id. at ¶ 7. In a second collateral attack, nine months prior to the appellate court affirming the dismissal of his pro se petition, White filed another pro se pleading that combined a successive petition for post-conviction relief with a petition for relief from judgement under section 2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure. Id. at ¶ 9.

The matter was continued pending a resolution of the first appeal and finally resulted in the filing of a sixth amended petition (appellant filed numerous pro se amended petitions and a few with counsel during this time period), which raised 13 claims. The amended petition was dismissed for being untimely under section 2-1401. Id. at ¶ 11.

In a third collateral attack, White filed a pro se motion for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition, asserting that his mandatory natural life sentences violated the eighth amendment of the Constitution and the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution, as applied to him, because he was a “20 year old minor” at the time of the murders. Id. at ¶ 13. White cited recently discovered scientific evidence of the maturation of individuals’ brains between the ages of 18 and 21, including “evidence” of “nonapplications” of natural life sentences for multiple murder charges. White also presented affidavits from individuals who had allegedly heard his brother brag about receiving a sentence reduction as part of his plea agreement. Id. at ¶ 14. The court denied the motion for leave, finding that White had “failed to make a sufficient showing of either cause or prejudice.” Id. at ¶ 15. This appeal followed.

The Appellate Court noted that leave of court may only be granted if both cause and prejudice are demonstrated by the petitioner. This is the case because White did not raise a claim of actual innocence. The Appellate Court found that White could not establish prejudice “since his claims are not legally cognizable.” Id. at ¶ 18.

First, the court determined that White’s age at the time he murdered his grandmother and her friend was insufficient to consider him “youthful,” such that a mandatory life sentence would be cruel and unusual under the eighth amendment. Id at ¶ 19. The court considered White an adult at the time of offense.

Because Miller protections to do not apply to adult offenders, White was not entitled to benefit from specific considerations that attend youth at sentencing. Id. at ¶ 20. The court held that White’s as-applied challenge failed to demonstrate that White was more like a child than an adult at the time of offense. Further, the court determined that the statute under which White was sentenced is facially valid for adult offenders and cannot amount to a violation of the eighth amendment. Id. at ¶ 21.

The court applied similar reasoning to the proportionate penalties clause challenge and ultimately determined that “his degree of culpability and adult age do not justify advancing his petition, as his case was distinguishable from those cited in his petition, as he was in fact, an adult.” Id. at ¶ 22-26. Ultimately, the court held that White’s sentence of natural life imprisonment did not shock the moral sense of the community and did not violate the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution. Id. at ¶ 29.

The Appellate Court of Illinois Fifth District affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court of Madison County.

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