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Steilman v. Michael

Supreme Court of Montana

December 13, 2017

REGINALD MICHAEL, Director, Montana Department of Corrections, TIMOTHY CHARLES FOX, Montana Attorney General, Respondents.

          Argued and Submitted: May 17, 2017

         Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus District Court of the Second Judicial District, In and for the County of Silver Bow, Cause No. DC 98-131 Honorable James E. Purcell, Presiding Judge.

          For Petitioner: Colin M. Stephens (argued), Nick K. Brooke (argued), Smith & Stephens, P.C., Missoula, Montana.

          For Respondents: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Jonathan M. Krauss (argued), Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Colleen Ambrose, Chief Legal Counsel, Montana Department of Corrections, Helena, Montana.


          James Jeremiah Shea Justice.

         ¶1 Derrick Earl Steilman petitions for a writ of habeas corpus. Relying on Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, ___U.S.___, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), Steilman argues that his sentence of 110 years imprisonment, without the possibility of parole, for deliberate homicide with the use of a weapon, violates his Eighth Amendment rights because Steilman committed the offense when he was seventeen years old and the sentencing court failed to consider the special circumstances of his youth.

         ¶2 We address the following issues:

Issue One: Whether Miller and Montgomery apply to Montana's discretionary sentencing scheme.
Issue Two: Whether Steilman's sentence qualifies as a de facto life sentence to which Miller and Montgomery apply.

         ¶3 We hold that Miller and Montgomery apply to discretionary sentences in Montana. Regarding the applicability to de facto life sentences in Montana, the dispositive issue in this case is whether the unique circumstances of Steilman's Montana sentence, when viewed in light of his eligibility for day-for-day good time credit and the concurrent sentence he is presently serving in Washington, qualifies as a de facto life sentence to which Miller's substantive rule applies. We conclude that Steilman's sentence does not qualify as a de facto life sentence, and therefore we do not reach the merits of whether the District Court properly considered the special circumstances of Steilman's youth in this case as required by Miller. We deny Steilman's petition.


         ¶4 On the night of September 17-18, 1996, Steilman and his accomplice, Steven Francis, made a pact to kill someone as a show of trust before pursuing a criminal enterprise together that included a planned bank robbery. Steilman and Francis randomly crossed paths with Paul Bischke. Steilman and Francis demanded Bischke's money, then struck him at least four times in the head, face, and arms with a crow bar, killing him. At the time he committed this murder, Steilman was 17 years and 323 days old, six weeks before his eighteenth birthday.

         ¶5 Steilman then moved to Tacoma, Washington, where nearly two years later, on or about September 10, 1998, he killed Jack Davis by beating Davis with a baseball bat. Within a week, Steilman and his then-girlfriend Colleen Wood were arrested in Butte in connection with the Washington homicide. Wood reported that Steilman took her to Davis's apartment to show her Davis's body. Another former girlfriend of Steilman's told law enforcement that he admitted to killing someone and acted "as if it was nothing, " but she waited to contact law enforcement because Steilman threatened to kill her. The presentence investigation report provided Steilman dropped out of school before the tenth grade in large part due to drug and alcohol abuse, which started when he was thirteen. The report also provided that Steilman surrounded himself with "friends and acquaintances [who] were almost all using drugs and alcohol and living a criminal lifestyle to support their addictions."

         ¶6 On October 5, 1998, the State charged Steilman with deliberate homicide. The prosecution commenced in Youth Court because Steilman was under eighteen when he committed the first murder. The State moved to transfer Steilman's case to District Court. The Youth Court found: Steilman was seventeen years old when he committed the offense; probable cause existed; the delinquent act constituted deliberate homicide; the gravity of the offense and protection of the community required treatment beyond that afforded by juvenile facilities; the offense was committed in an aggressive and violent manner; and § 41-5-206(3) (1995), MCA, required transfer to the District Court.

         ¶7 Following the transfer to District Court, Steilman was returned to Washington for prosecution of Davis's murder. He pled guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to 260 months of incarceration plus 24 months for the use of a weapon, totaling 23 years, 8 months. As an inmate of the State of Washington, Steilman was returned on a detainer order to be prosecuted in Montana for Bischke's murder.

         ¶8 On October 1, 1999, Steilman pled guilty to deliberate homicide. On October 15, 1999, the District Court sentenced Steilman to the Montana State Prison for 100 years for deliberate homicide and 10 years for the use of a weapon, to run consecutively. The District Court reasoned that "the gravity and random nature of the murder . . . [, Steilman's] commission of another homicide, the punishment permitted by law and the possibility, or lack thereof, of rehabilitation" justified the 110-year sentence. The District Court also ordered Steilman ineligible for parole, remarking the "commission of a senseless, brutal, random homicide demonstrates that [Steilman] is not a suitable candidate for parole or other supervised release."

         ¶9 Steilman's Montana sentence is eligible for day-for-day good time allowance, which, contingent upon his behavior in prison, could make him eligible for release in 55 years. Section 53-30-105, MCA (1995); see Wilcock v. State, No. OP 11-0442, 362 Mont. 544, 272 P.3d 125 (table) (Sept. 13, 2011). Also, the District Court ordered Steilman's 110-year prison term to run concurrent with his 23 years, 8 months Washington sentence. Under Washington law, Steilman is required to serve at least two-thirds of his sentence before he would be eligible for community release.


         ¶10 Section 46-22-101, MCA, provides "every person imprisoned or otherwise restrained of liberty within this state may prosecute a writ of habeas corpus to inquire into the cause of imprisonment or restraint and, if illegal, to be delivered from the imprisonment or restraint." Article II, Section 19 of the Montana Constitution guarantees the writ of habeas corpus shall never be suspended. The writ of habeas corpus is available to challenge the legality of the sentence; however, it is not available to attack the validity of the conviction or sentence of a person who has been adjudged guilty of an offense in a court of record and has exhausted the remedy of appeal. Sections 46-21-101(1), -22-101(2), MCA; Rudolph v. Day, 273 Mont. 309, 311, 902 P.2d 1007, 1008 (1995). The exception for filing habeas petitions to challenge a facially invalid sentence is generally limited to invalidity that "stems from a rule created after time limits for directly appealing or petitioning for postconviction relief have expired." Beach v. State, 2015 MT 118, ¶ 6, 379 Mont. 74, 348 P.3d 629 (citing Lott v. State, 2006 MT 279, ¶ 22, 334 Mont. 270, 150 P.3d 337). A petitioner who successfully challenges a sentence by way of habeas corpus, but not the underlying conviction, is not entitled to be ...

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