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Garza v. Frakes

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

April 9, 2018

SCOTT R. FRAKES, Director, Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, Respondent.



         This matter is before the Court on Christopher Garza's (“Garza”) Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (“petition”) under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Filing No. 1). Garza, an inmate at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Nebraska, contends “he is being held in violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment because he was a minor at the time of his offense and was sentenced to a de facto life sentence without a finding of irreparable corruption.” Respondent Scott R. Frakes, Director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, requests that the Court deny the petition with prejudice without an evidentiary hearing. For the reasons given below, Garza's petition is denied and this case is dismissed with prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         On March 21, 1990, high-school senior Christina O'Day (“O'Day”) was brutally raped and murdered while she babysat an eight-year-old little girl. Before she died, O'Day suffered numerous injuries at the hands of her killer while the little girl listened from another room. O'Day was tied up, beaten, strangled, and cut with a knife over the course of three hours. The coroner determined any one of three harms could each have caused O'Day's death-strangulation, asphyxiation, and bleeding to death from a deep laceration to her right wrist.

         At trial, Wayne K. Brewer (“Brewer”), a friend of Garza's, testified he and Garza broke into the home where O'Day was babysitting ostensibly to steal from her employer. Garza knew O'Day from school and claimed to have dated her. While Brewer was looking for things to steal, he saw Garza and O'Day enter the little girl's room and tell her to go back to sleep. Later, Garza came downstairs and told Brewer, “Go have some fun.” According to Brewer, he originally refused but eventually went to O'Day's bedroom and found her on the bed bound and gagged. Brewer claims he briefly sexually assaulted O'Day and then went back downstairs. Brewer testified Garza returned to the bedroom and later retrieved a fourteen-inch knife from the kitchen. Brewer witnessed Garza cut O'Day with the knife before he and Garza left with the stolen items and O'Day's car. They left her to die.

         Testifying on his own behalf, Garza denied Brewer's horrific account. Although he had previously told police that he had been at the house and had sexual intercourse with O'Day, but that Brewer killed her, at trial, Garza denied going to the house with Brewer. By Garza's account, he was with Brewer earlier that night but dropped him off at his house and went home to bed. Garza testified that when he learned O'Day had been killed, he asked Brewer about it and Brewer confessed. The jury rejected Garza's story.

         On January 18, 1991, the jury convicted Garza of first-degree (felony) murder and use of a knife to commit a felony. Garza, who was sixteen at the time of the offense, received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for the murder conviction and received a consecutive sentence of 6 2/3 to 20 years for the weapon conviction. Brewer, who was eighteen at the time of the offense, received a life sentence. The Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed Garza's convictions and sentences on direct appeal. State v. Garza, 492 N.W.2d 32, 50 (Neb. 1992).

         In 2012, the United States Supreme Court held “that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479 (2012). The court expressly declined to consider the “alternative argument that the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles.” Id. The court nevertheless opined it would expect such sentences would be “uncommon, ” particularly because of “the great difficulty . . . of distinguishing at this early age between ‘the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.'” Id. at 479-80 (quoting Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 573 (2005), and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 68 (2010)).

         After the Nebraska Supreme Court determined Miller applied retroactively, see State v. Mantich, 842 N.W.2d 716, 731 (Neb. 2014); accord Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S.__, __, 136 S.Ct. 718, 736 (2016), Garza's sentencing judge granted his request for post-conviction relief and held a comprehensive resentencing hearing. Garza, 888 N.W.2d at 534-35. Garza admitted “participat[ing] in the robbery, rape, and murder of” O'Day and expressed remorse for his crimes. Id. at 533. Upon reviewing the trial transcript and exhibits, police reports, an updated presentence report, letters submitted to the court, and Garza's mitigation evidence, the judge credited Garza's efforts at rehabilitation but stated he had to balance those efforts against the nature of his offense and what he had done to O'Day. Id. The judge then sentenced Garza to 90 to 90 years on the murder conviction and 6 2/3 to 20 years for the weapon conviction to run consecutively. Unless Garza loses good-time credit, he will be eligible for parole after forty-eight years and four months and will be mandatorily discharged upon serving fifty-five years. Id.

         Garza timely appealed his sentence to the Nebraska Supreme Court, arguing his sentence was excessive and violated his constitutional rights. Id. at 534-35. More precisely, Garza argued his sentence for murder amounted to a “de facto life sentence” in violation of his constitutional rights because he would not be eligible for parole until he is sixty-four[2] years old and will not complete his sentence until he is seventy-one. Id. at 535. Garza also argued that in sentencing him on the murder conviction, the judge failed to make a specific finding Garza was the “rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption” described in Miller. Id.

         The Nebraska Supreme Court rejected Garza's arguments and affirmed his sentences. Id. The court concluded “Garza's characterization of his sentence as a ‘de facto life sentence' [was] immaterial” because Miller allowed a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life without parole. Id. The court also found “no merit to his argument that” Miller and its progeny required “the sentencing court . . . to make a specific finding of ‘irreparable corruption.'” Id. The court explained any such rule from Miller did not apply because unlike the juvenile offenders in those cases, who were “sentenced, or resentenced to life imprisonment without parole, ” Garza “was resentenced to a term of years and is eligible for parole” under Nebraska law. Id. at 535-36. In the court's view, “[t]he requirements of Miller were met when Garza was resentenced.” Id. at 536.

         Garza petitioned the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which was denied on October 2, 2017. Garza v. Nebraska, __U.S.__, 138 S.Ct. 83 (2017). Garza now petitions this Court for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging (as he did in his petition for a writ of certiorari) that his sentence to a term of years is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).


         A. ...

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