STATE OF ARIZONA v. JOHN BALLA PIERCE (pdf)

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IN THE ARIZONA COURT OF APPEALS DIVISION TWO THE STATE OF ARIZONA, Respondent, v. JOHN BALLA PIERCE, Petitioner. No. 2 CA-CR 2022-0160-PR Filed November 16, 2023 THIS DECISION DOES NOT CREATE LEGAL PRECEDENT AND MAY NOT BE CITED EXCEPT AS AUTHORIZED BY APPLICABLE RULES. NOT FOR PUBLICATION See Ariz. R. Sup. Ct. 111(c)(1); Ariz. R. Crim. P. 31.19(e). Petition for Review from the Superior Court in Maricopa County No. CR2006013269001DT The Honorable Geoffrey H. Fish, Judge REVIEW GRANTED; RELIEF DENIED COUNSEL Rachel H. Mitchell, Maricopa County Attorney By Julie A. Done and Christopher Sammons, Deputy County Attorneys, Phoenix Counsel for Respondent Law Offices of Stephen L. Duncan P.L.C., Scottsdale By Stephen L. Duncan Counsel for Petitioner STATE v. PIERCE Decision of the Court MEMORANDUM DECISION Judge Sklar authored the decision of the Court, in which Vice Chief Judge Staring and Judge O’Neil concurred. S K L A R, Judge: ¶1 John Pierce seeks review of the trial court’s order summarily dismissing his petition for post-conviction relief in light of Jones v. Mississippi, 593 U.S ___, 141 S. Ct. 1307 (2021). We grant review but deny relief. ¶2 After a jury trial, Pierce was convicted of first-degree murder, attempted armed robbery, first-degree burglary, conspiracy to commit armed robbery, and aggravated assault. He committed those offenses when he was sixteen years old. His sentences included a natural-life prison term for murder. We affirmed his convictions and sentences on appeal. State v. Pierce, 223 Ariz. 570 (App. 2010). State v. Pierce, No. 1 CA-CR 08-0175 (Ariz. App. Jan. 21, 2010) (mem. decision). ¶3 Pierce sought post-conviction relief under Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), which prohibits mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders convicted of homicide, and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016), which made that ruling retroactive. See State v. Purcell, ___ Ariz. ___, ¶ 3, 526 P.3d 146, 147 (2023). He argued he was entitled to be resentenced, citing State v. Valencia (“Valencia I”), 239 Ariz. 255 (App. 2016), vacated, “Valencia II”, 241 Ariz. 206 (2016). ¶4 In Valencia I, this court determined that pursuant to Miller and Montgomery, a juvenile offender could not be sentenced to a natural-life prison term “unless the juvenile’s offenses reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Valencia I, 239 Ariz. 255, ¶ 17. Because that apparent standard was “heretofore unknown,” we determined that parties “should be given the opportunity to present evidence relevant to that standard.” Id. ¶ 16. Our supreme court later largely confirmed the conclusion we reached in Valencia I, holding that juveniles sentenced to life without parole were entitled to an evidentiary hearing to “have an opportunity to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that their crimes did not reflect irreparable corruption but instead transient immaturity.” Valencia II, 241 2 STATE v. PIERCE Decision of the Court Ariz. 206, ¶ 18. In this case, the trial court, determining “a colorable claim for relief exists,” set an evidentiary hearing. ¶5 Before that hearing, however, the United States Supreme Court decided Jones v. Mississippi, ___ U.S. ___, 141 S. Ct. 1307 (2021). There, the Court clarified that a natural-life sentence for a juvenile is constitutional “so long as the sentencer has discretion to ‘consider the mitigating qualities of youth’ and impose a lesser punishment.” 141 S. Ct. at 1314 (quoting Miller, 567 U.S. at 476). The Court further clarified that although a sentencing court was required to consider a juvenile offender’s “youth and attendant characteristics” before imposing a sentence of life without parole, it was not required to specifically find that the juvenile was permanently incorrigible. Id. Citing Jones, the state moved to vacate the evidentiary hearing. The trial court granted the state’s motion and dismissed Pierce’s post-conviction proceeding, concluding that Jones “implicitly overruled” Valencia II and that Pierce was thus not entitled to an evidentiary hearing because the sentencing court had properly considered his youth and its attendant circumstances. This petition for review followed. ¶6 While Pierce’s petition was pending, our supreme court decided State ex rel. Mitchell v. Cooper, ___ Ariz. ___, 535 P.3d 3 (2023). The court overruled Valencia II in light of Jones, eliminating Valencia II’s rule that juvenile defendants seeking post-conviction relief are entitled to an evidentiary hearing to demonstrate “‘that their crimes did not reflect irreparable corruption but instead transient immaturity’” when a court has imposed a natural-life sentence “without distinguishing crimes that reflected ‘irreparable corruption’ rather than the ‘transient immaturity of youth.’” Id. ¶ 47 (quoting Valencia II, 241 Ariz. 206, ¶¶ 15, 18). We directed the parties to file supplemental memoranda addressing the effect, if any, of Cooper on the issues raised in Pierce’s petition for review. ¶7 In his supplemental memorandum, Pierce correctly notes that our supreme court in Cooper “acknowledge[d] that there is a duty for the sentencing court to consider the defendant’s youth and attendant characteristics” before it may impose a natural-life sentence. See id. ¶ 42, n.3. He asserts the sentencing court did not meet that duty here and instead only “considered [his] youth in the most general possible sense and there is no indication whatsoever that the attendant characteristics were considered.” Pierce focuses on the court’s sole comment on his youth at sentencing, when the court found “youth is a mitigator; however, the Court gives it limited weight given the fact that there has been prior police 3 STATE v. PIERCE Decision of the Court contact.” 1 But the Supreme Court clarified in Jones that neither the Constitution nor “historical or contemporary sentencing practice” require “an on-the-record explanation of the mitigating circumstance of youth by the sentencer.” 141 S. Ct. at 1320-21. Nor does Arizona law require such findings. See State v. Cid, 181 Ariz. 496, 501 (App. 1995). ¶8 The state points to the significant mitigation evidence presented to the sentencing court. That evidence included articles critical of natural-life sentences for juvenile offenders, information about Pierce’s difficult childhood and struggles with substance abuse and mental health, and a detailed psychological evaluation that concluded Pierce lacked maturity, including an inability “to regulate basic drives and emotions,” resulting in “low frustration tolerance, impulsivity, difficulties with attention, and problems regulating the basic emotion of fear which is the foundation for anger.” We presume the sentencing court considered all evidence presented. See State v. Everhart, 169 Ariz. 404, 407 (App. 1991). That evidence provided ample and detailed information about the attendant circumstances of Pierce’s youth. Thus, there is no basis in this record to conclude Pierce’s sentencing proceeding did not comply with the Constitution. The trial court did not err in summarily dismissing his petition for post-conviction relief. ¶9 We grant review but deny relief. In his supplemental memorandum, Pierce compares the facts underlying his convictions to the facts underlying the convictions of the defendants in Cooper. But that comparison is not material to whether his sentencing procedure was constitutional—that is, whether the sentencing court understood it had discretion to impose a lesser sentence and considered the defendant’s youth and attendant characteristics. See Jones, 141 S. Ct. at 1314. Additionally, insofar as he suggests his sentencing procedure was less thorough than the procedure given to those defendants, nothing in Cooper suggests the procedures detailed in that case represent the minimum constitutional standard. 1 4

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