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147428 - People v Eliason (Dakotah)

The People of the State of Michigan,
 
Elizabeth A. Wild
 
Plaintiff-Appellee,
 
v
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
 
 
(Berrien – Schofield, S.)
 
Dakotah Wolfgang Eliason,
 
Jonathan R. Sacks
 
Defendant-Appellant.
 


Summary

​In March 2010, 15-year-old Dakotah Eliason shot and killed his grandfather.  After the shooting, Eliason said that he had been contemplating homicide or suicide, and that he shot his grandfather our of “sadness” and “pent up anger,” but that he was not angry with his grandfather, but was instead angry with his parents.  The police officers who interviewed Eliason remarked on his composure immediately after the shooting and his apparent lack of remorse.  At trial, witnesses testified that Eliason had a friend who had recently committed suicide as well as a cousin who was killed in a car accident.  Eliason’s pet dog had also recently died.  Eliason was an honor-roll student who had no prior behavioral problems. 

Eliason was convicted by a jury of first-degree premeditated murder and felony firearm.  His attorney objected that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional, but the trial court disagreed, and sentenced Eliason to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder conviction. 

In the Court of Appeals, Eliason raised issues concerning the conduct of his trial and his sentence.  The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court for a hearing to determine whether Eliason received ineffective representation from his attorney.  The trial court ruled that Eliason was not entitled to a new trial, and the case returned to the Court of Appeals.  In a published opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed Eliason’s convictions, but ruled that he was entitled to resentencing.

The Court of Appeals focused on two recent rulings, Miller v Alabama, 567 US ___; 132 S Ct 2455; 183 L Ed 2d 407 (2012), and People v Carp, 298 Mich App 472 (2012).  In Miller, the United States Supreme Court held for the first time that the mandatory imposition of life without parole on juvenile homicide offenders violated the Eighth Amendment.  In Carp, the Court of Appeals advised trial courts that the remedy for a Miller violation would be a remand to the trial court for consideration of whether a juvenile defendant should be eligible for parole after the imposition of the mandatory life sentence that follows a conviction for first-degree murder. 

The appeals panel agreed that Eliason was entitled to be resentenced under Miller.  A two-judge majority agreed with the advice that the Carp panel offered to trial courts, and ruled that “the only discretion afforded to the trial court in light of our first-degree murder statutes and Miller is whether to impose a penalty of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.”  In fact, noted the majority, Eliason could receive the very same sentence on remand.  Miller did not foreclose a trial court’s ability to sentence a juvenile in a homicide case to life without parole, so long as the sentence takes into account “how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”  The majority vacated Eliason’s sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, and remanded the case to the trial court “for an individualized sentence within the strictures of Miller.” 

The dissenting judge agreed with the majority that Eliason was entitled to be resentenced, but disagreed with the restrictions placed on the sentencing court by the majority.  The Michigan Constitution “forbids the trial court from resentencing Dakotah to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole,” the dissenting judge concluded.   Moreover, “because Michigan’s parole guidelines do not take into account Dakotah’s youth at the time he committed the crime,” the dissenting judge believed that “both the U.S. and Michigan Constitutions mandate that the trial court consider sentencing Dakotah to a term of years that affords him a realistic opportunity for release.” 

Eliason appealed.  On November 6, 2013, the Michigan Supreme Court granted leave to appeal, “limited to the issues:  (1) whether the Court of Appeals correctly applied Miller v Alabama, 567 US ___; 132 S Ct 2455; 183 L Ed 2d 407 (2012), to Michigan’s sentencing scheme for first-degree murder; (2) whether that sentencing scheme amounts to cruel or unusual punishment under Const 1963, art 1, § 16 as applied to defendants under the age of 18; and (3) what remedy is required for defendants whose sentences have been found invalid under Miller or Const 1963, art 1, § 16.”