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Wyatt L. Bear Cloud v. the State of Wyoming

February 8, 2013


Appeal from the District Court of Sheridan County The Honorable John G. Fenn, Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Donnell, District Judge.

Before KITE, C.J., HILL, BURKE, J.J., GOLDEN, J., Retired, and DONNELL, D.J.

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of typographical or other formal errors so correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.

[¶1] This is the second time we have considered Appellant Wyatt Bear Cloud's appeal from his conviction for murder in the first degree (felony murder), in violation of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-101(a) (LexisNexis 2009).*fn1 In the first appeal, this Court held that Mr. Bear Cloud's sentence of life imprisonment for first-degree murder, mandated by Wyoming Statute § 6-2-101(b), was constitutional under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Bear Cloud v. State, 2012 WY 16, 275 P.3d 377 (Wyo. 2012), reh'g denied (Mar. 6, 2012) (hereinafter "Bear Cloud I"). Mr. Bear Cloud sought review of that ruling in the United States Supreme Court, which summarily vacated the judgment in Bear Cloud I and remanded the case to us for further consideration in light of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012), which case was entered after our decision in Bear Cloud I. Bear Cloud v. Wyoming, ___ U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 183, 183-84, 184 L.Ed.2d 5 (2012) (mem.).

[¶2] On remand, we hold in light of the Miller decision that Mr. Bear Cloud's sentence for his first-degree murder conviction violates the Eighth Amendment and related United States Supreme Court case law. Consequently, we will remand the matter to the district court with instructions to resentence Mr. Bear Cloud on the first-degree murder conviction so as to conform to Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and this opinion.


[¶3] The Court largely adopts the State's phrasing of the single issue on remand: The United States Supreme Court recently held that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Mr. Bear Cloud pled guilty to first-degree murder and received a sentence of "life according to law" under Wyoming Statute § 6-2-101(b), but other state statutes make him ineligible for parole. Does the phrase "life according to law" conform to recent United States Supreme Court case law, or is Wyoming Statute § 6-2-101(b) unconstitutional as applied to juveniles?


[¶4] In the early morning hours of August 26, 2009, Mr. Bear Cloud, along with co-defendants Dennis Poitra, Jr. and Dharminder Vir Sen, entered the home of Robert and Linda Ernst in Sheridan, Wyoming, with the intent to steal items from the home. While committing this burglary, Mr. Sen shot and killed Mr. Ernst. Mr. Bear Cloud was sixteen years old at the time; Mr. Sen, fifteen; and Mr. Poitra was eighteen.

[¶5] In the several days prior to the murder, during meetings at Mr. Bear Cloud's residence, the three planned to commit a series of armed burglaries. They obtained weapons (including a knife, a 9mm handgun, and a bat) and a map, planned the location of the burglaries, and obtained dark clothing and masks to conceal their identity. During this planning phase, Mr. Bear Cloud and Mr. Sen broke into a pickup truck and stole the handgun that Mr. Sen later used to kill Mr. Ernst.

[¶6] Early in the morning on August 26, 2009, the three broke into the Ernst home as the second of their targeted residences. At the time of their entry, Mr. Poitra had the handgun and the knife; Mr. Sen possessed the bat. As they proceeded to the basement to search for items to steal, they passed the master bedroom and observed Mr. and Mrs. Ernst asleep. After some searching, Mr. Sen obtained the handgun from Mr. Poitra, stating that he wanted to force Mr. Ernst to open a safe located in the basement.

[¶7] The three cohorts returned upstairs, and Mr. Poitra and Mr. Sen entered the master bedroom. Mr. Bear Cloud apparently was on the same floor, but not in the Ernsts' bedroom. After waking Mr. Ernst, Mr. Sen yelled something at Mr. Ernst and then shot him three times, killing him. The trio then fled back to Mr. Bear Cloud's residence.


[¶8] On September 8, 2010, Mr. Bear Cloud entered "cold" guilty pleas to all three charges. On January 10, 2011, he filed a motion challenging the constitutionality of a life sentence for a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder. The district court held a sentencing hearing on February 9, 2011, where it denied the constitutional challenge.

[¶9] The district court sentenced Mr. Bear Cloud to 20--25 years in prison on the aggravated burglary conviction; life imprisonment according to law on the first-degree murder conviction, to be served consecutively to the sentence for aggravated burglary; and 20--25 years in prison on the conspiracy to commit aggravated burglary conviction, to be served concurrently with the first-degree murder sentence but consecutively to the aggravated burglary sentence. Only the life sentence for first-degree murder is at issue in this appeal.

[¶10] In his first appeal, Mr. Bear Cloud raised seven issues. Of pertinence here, Mr. Bear Cloud argued that his mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for first-degree murder was cruel and unusual and, therefore, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. We held that the sentence did not violate the Eighth Amendment, and we affirmed Mr. Bear Cloud's convictions and sentence. Bear Cloud I, ¶¶ 81-88, 275 P.3d at 411-13. We stated, "Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-101(b) is not rendered unconstitutional by its mandatory sentencing structure, even as applied to a juvenile offender, and particularly in light of the district court's ability to consider mitigating circumstances when considering whether to transfer proceedings to juvenile court." Id., ¶ 87, 275 P.3d at 413.

[¶11] After that decision, the United States Supreme Court issued Miller, 567 U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2455, where it held that "the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders." Id., 567 U.S. at ___, 132 S.Ct. at 2469. The Court reasoned, "By making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment." Id.

[¶12] Based on Miller, Mr. Bear Cloud petitioned the United States Supreme Court to overturn this Court's prior decision. By summary disposition, the United States Supreme Court granted the petition for writ of certiorari, vacated the judgment in Bear Cloud I, and remanded the case for further consideration in light of Miller. Bear Cloud v. State, ___ U.S. at ___, 133 S.Ct. at 183-84.


[¶13] This Court considers a challenge to the constitutionality of a statute de novo. Issues of constitutionality present questions of law. We review questions of law under a de novo standard of review and afford no deference to the district court's determinations on the issues. Anderson v. Bommer, 926 P.2d 959, 961 (Wyo. 1996).

[¶14] This appeal also requires the Court to interpret and apply the statutes governing sentencing for first-degree murder and parole eligibility. Statutory interpretation is a question of law, which we consider de novo. Spreeman v. State, 2012 WY 88, ¶ 6, 278 P.3d 1159, 1161 (Wyo. 2012).


[¶15] When considering whether a statute is constitutional, we will presume it so and resolve any doubt in favor of its constitutionality. Reiter v. State, 2001 WY 116, ¶ 7, 36 P.3d 586, 589 (Wyo. 2001). "[Appellant] bears the burden of proving the statute is unconstitutional." Id.

[¶16] While the Miller decision serves as the impetus for us to reconsider the constitutionality of Mr. Bear Cloud's sentencing, it is useful to begin by reviewing the pertinent United States Supreme Court cases that guide our decision today.

I. Relevant Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence

[¶17] We begin by setting forth the basic structure underlying Eighth Amendment considerations before reviewing related United States Supreme Court case law.

A. Framework for Eighth Amendment Analysis

[¶18] The Eighth Amendment prohibits punishments that are inherently barbaric or disproportionate to the crime.

The Eighth Amendment states: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." To determine whether a punishment is cruel and unusual, courts must look beyond historical conceptions to "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 102, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976) (quoting Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101, 78 S.Ct. 590, 2 L.Ed.2d 630 (1958) (plurality opinion)). "This is because '[t]he standard of extreme cruelty is not merely descriptive, but necessarily embodies a moral judgment. The standard itself remains the same, but its applicability must change as the basic mores of society change.'" Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407, 419, 128 S.Ct. 2641, 2649, 171 L.Ed.2d 525, 538 (2008) (quoting Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 382, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972) (Burger, C.J., dissenting)).

The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause prohibits the imposition of inherently barbaric punishments under all circumstances. See, e.g., Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002). "[P]unishments of torture," for example, "are forbidden." Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130, 136, 25 L.Ed. 345 (1879). These cases underscore the essential principle that, under the Eighth ...

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