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Armstrong v. People

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

May 22, 2017

Cheryl Armstrong, Petitioner
v.
The People of the State of Colorado. Respondent

         Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 11CA2034

          Attorneys for Petitioner: MS&M Law Office Nicole M. Mooney Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondent: Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General Patricia R. Van Horn, Senior Assistant Attorney General Joseph G. Michaels, Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado

          Attorney for Amicus Curiae Colorado Criminal Defense Bar: Philip A. Cherner Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Amici Curiae Juvenile Law Center, Colorado Juvenile Defender Center, Center for Children's Law and Policy, Coalition for Juvenile Justice, National Center for Youth Law, and Youth Law Center: Juvenile Law Center Marsha Levick Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Colorado Juvenile Defender Center Kim Dvorchak Denver, Colorado

          OPINION

          EID JUSTICE.

         ¶1 In 1995, a jury convicted Cheryl Armstrong of two counts of second-degree murder under a complicity theory. Armstrong was sixteen at the time of the charged offenses, and she was tried as an adult. The trial court sentenced her to forty-eight years in prison on each count, to be served consecutively, resulting in an aggregate sentence of ninety-six years in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

         ¶2 Following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), which categorically banned sentences of life without parole for juveniles who were not convicted of homicide, Armstrong filed a motion with the district court arguing that her aggregate term-of-years sentence is the functional equivalent of life without parole and is therefore unconstitutional under Graham. The district court denied Armstrong's motion. On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed, concluding that, because Armstrong will be eligible for parole at about age sixty, she has a meaningful opportunity to obtain release, and her sentence thereby complies with Graham and the subsequent case of Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012). People v. Armstrong (Armstrong II), No. 11CA2034, slip op. at 7, 21-23 (Colo.App. Oct. 17, 2013).

         ¶3 We granted certiorari and now affirm the court of appeals, albeit on different grounds. For reasons discussed at length in our lead companion case, Lucero v. People, 2017 CO 49, ___ P.3d ___, also announced today, [1] we hold that Graham and Miller do not apply to, and therefore do not invalidate, Armstrong's aggregate term-of-years sentence.

         I.

         ¶4 In April 1995, Armstrong drove two friends to the house of a former boyfriend who she believed was expecting a child with someone else. Upon arriving, Armstrong parked the car and stayed inside. Her friends got out and entered the house, where they shot and killed the former boyfriend and his pregnant female companion. Armstrong was sixteen at the time of the offenses, but she was tried as an adult for her role. A jury found that Armstrong was complicit in the murders and convicted her of two counts of second-degree murder. The trial court sentenced Armstrong to consecutive forty-eight-year sentences for each count, resulting in an aggregate sentence of ninety-six years in the custody of the Department of Corrections. The court of appeals affirmed Armstrong's convictions on direct appeal. People v. Armstrong, No. 96CA0044 (Colo.App. Nov. 14, 1996).

         ¶5 In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. Subsequently, in 2011, Armstrong filed a motion for post-conviction relief in district court pursuant to Rule 35(c)[2] of the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure. As relevant here, she argued that her ninety-six-year sentence violates the Eighth Amendment under Graham because it is a "virtual life sentence" and denies her a meaningful opportunity for release. The district court denied the motion, and the court of appeals affirmed, concluding that, because Armstrong will be eligible for parole at about age sixty, she has a meaningful opportunity to obtain release and her sentence thereby complies with Graham and Miller. Armstrong II, slip op. at 7, 21-23.

         ¶6 We granted certiorari[3] and now affirm the court of appeals, ...


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