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Estrada-Huerta v. People

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

May 22, 2017

Alejandro Estrada-Huerta, Petitioner
v.
The People of the State of Colorado. Respondent

         Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 11CA1932

          Attorneys for Petitioner: The Noble Law Firm, LLC Antony Noble Tara Jorfald Lakewood, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondent: Cynthia H. Coffman, 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 2006, a jury convicted Alejandro Estrada-Huerta of second-degree kidnapping and sexual assault. Estrada-Huerta was seventeen at the time he was charged with the offenses, and he was tried as an adult. The trial court sentenced Estrada-Huerta to twenty-four years for the kidnapping conviction and sixteen years to life for each count of sexual assault. The sexual assault sentences were ordered to run concurrently with each other but consecutive to the kidnapping sentence, resulting in an aggregate sentence of forty years to life 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, Estrada-Huerta filed a motion with the district court arguing that his aggregate term-of-years sentence is the functional equivalent of life without parole and is therefore unconstitutional under Graham. The district court denied Estrada-Huerta's motion. On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed, concluding that, because Estrada-Huerta will be eligible for parole at age fifty-eight, he has a meaningful opportunity to obtain release, and his sentence thereby complies with Graham and the subsequent case of Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012). People v. Estrada-Huerta (Estrada-Huerta II), No. 11CA1932, slip op. at 8 (Colo.App. Dec. 12, 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, Estrada-Huerta's aggregate term-of-years sentence.

         I.

         ¶4 In 2004, when he was seventeen, Estrada-Huerta and several companions forced a fifteen-year-old into a truck, drove elsewhere, and sexually assaulted her. They then forced the victim into another vehicle, where she was sexually assaulted again. Estrada-Huerta was charged with two counts of second-degree kidnapping, three counts of sexual assault, unlawful sexual contact, and false imprisonment, and he was prosecuted as an adult. The latter two counts were dropped before trial, and a jury found Estrada-Huerta guilty of the remaining counts of second-degree kidnapping and sexual assault. After several counts were merged, the trial court in 2006 sentenced him to twenty-four years for kidnapping and sixteen years to life for each of two counts of sexual assault, which were ordered to run concurrently with each other but consecutive to the kidnapping sentence. Thus, Estrada-Huerta received an aggregate sentence of forty years to life in the custody of the Department of Corrections. The court of appeals affirmed Estrada-Huerta's convictions and sentences on direct appeal. People v. Estrada-Huerta, No. 06CA1814 (Colo.App. Apr. 10, 2008).

         ¶5 In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), holding 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. Estrada-Huerta subsequently filed a motion for post-conviction relief in district court pursuant to Rule 35(c)[2] of the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure. In pertinent part, he argued that his aggregate sentence is unconstitutional under Graham because it is effectively a sentence of life without parole and denies him a meaningful opportunity for release. The district court denied the motion.

         ¶6 Estrada-Huerta appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed the district court. The court of appeals first declared that a juvenile offender's sentence violates Graham if that offender will not become eligible for parole within his or her expected lifetime. Estrada-Huerta II, slip op. at 3. The court then determined that Estrada-Huerta's life expectancy is 78.1 years, using a mortality table found in a statute which has since been repealed, see § 13-25-103, C.R.S. (2013) (repeal effective 2014). Estrada-Huerta II, slip op. at 4. Because he will be eligible for parole after serving forty years, when he is fifty-eight, the court found that Estrada-Huerta will be eligible for parole within his life expectancy. Id. The court thus concluded that Estrada-Huerta's sentence provides him with a meaningful opportunity to obtain release and does not violate Graham and Miller.

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


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