State v Houston

Houston pled guilty to murder and was sentenced to life without parole. He appealed arguing the sentence was unconstitutional as he was a minor at the time of the crime. The Court, with a four justice majority on one issue, a three justice majority on other issues and a plurality as to one part of the opinion with one occurrence and one dissent, affirmed. The four justice majority held that claims of unconstitutional sentences which involve a facial attack only are claims of an “illegal sentence” under rule of Criminal Procedure 22(e) and thus while Houston’s challenges to his sentence were unpreserved, they met eh exception and could be reviewed. Three justices held that there was no prohibited judge fact finding in Houston’s sentencing proceeding, the lack of beyond a reasonable doubt standard was lawful because a death sentence was not involved, the classification of defendants into those facing a death sentence and all others was rational and thus did not violate the uniform operation of law clause of the Utah Constitution, the sentencing statute was not unconstitutionally vague as the statue provides guidance and the sate bears the burden of proof, and the unnecessary rigor clause of eth Utah constitution does not apply to sentences only prison conditions. Two justices argued the sentence was lawful under the federal constitution  because Utah’s sentencing statute requires individualized decision-making and a supermajority to depart form the presumptive 20 year sentence and was lawful under Utah’s constitution as lie without parole for a vicious murder does not violate proportionality principles as the sentencing statue reserves the punishment for the most egregious offenders. The three justice majority held Houston failed to prove ineffective assistance of counsel as his trial attorney exercised reasonable judgment in the choices to call certain expert witnesses and not others, reinforce the limited likelihood the Houston would be paroled if sentenced to 20 years, in conducting voir dire and in not objecting to prosecution arguments given those arguments were fair commentary on the evidence. Justice Lee filed a concurrence arguing Rule 22(e) only allows challenges of to sentences beyond statutory limits, violative of double jeopardy or ambiguous or internally contradictory and thus plain error review applies and there is no proportionality review under the original understanding of the Utah Constitution. Thus, he concurred in judgment. The dissent argued proportionality analysis is required under the Utah Constitution and, one justice argued that, based on the evolving standards of decency and the differences between adult and juvenile offenders, life without parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.