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Student Highlight: Defender Aid Argument

January 24, 2017

The reliance on precedent is often a lawyer’s bread and butter. The interpretation of decisions in higher courts trickle down and become vitally important to cases operating in the lower courts. One such instance has taken some of our students before the Wyoming Supreme Court on behalf of their clients. Students in the Defender Aid Program have been pursuing resentencing for their clients in the aftermath of the United States Supreme Court decision on Miller v. Alabama.

Decided June 25, 2012, Miller v. Alabama explored whether the imposition of a life sentence without the possibility of parole on a juvenile violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment forbids the mandatory sentencing of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.[1]

Defender Aid Student Director, Hannah Toland commented on the importance of the case.

“It is a pretty big deal taking the facts of a national case like Miller v. Alabama and interpreting them as they apply to Wyoming,” she says. “This will likely be an ongoing thing on how it is going to be applied within the state.”

Toland was one of two students who recently put the new precedent to the test, arguing before the Wyoming Supreme Court in November of 2016.

“My client was a child defendant sentenced at the age of 15. He received a thirty-five year to life sentence, so I argued that was in violation of Miller v. Alabama,” she explains.

 “I was so nervous, but I wanted to do well for my client,” she says. “Once you get up there, you are so full of adrenaline that it is quite nerve racking, but all of the preparation that we do in the clinic really paid off and I was able to represent my client to the best of my ability. It was a really satisfying experience.”

Toland is from Powell, Wyoming. She graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in Criminal Justice prior to applying to law school.

A decision on the case has not yet been made by the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Third-year law student Alyssa Clegg also argued a case based on the same U.S. Supreme Court decision. Her case was a resentencing hearing based on a motion to correct an illegal sentence.

The client was convicted at the age of 17 and sentenced to seventy years without the possibility of parole. Essentially, a life sentence. Now that Miller v. Alabama is retroactive, she argued that the client’s sentence should be amended accordingly.

She argued before Judge Edleman in Johnson County. While unsuccessful at the District Court level, the Defender Aid Program is appealing the case to the Wyoming Supreme Court.

“We hope that the case will go before the Wyoming Supreme Court before Alyssa graduates in the spring,” says Toland. “Alyssa has worked a lot of hours on the case and she did such an excellent job arguing the case before, it would just be really great if she was able to see this case through to the end.”

Clegg is from Saratoga, Wyoming and she too earned a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from UW. In addition to her work in the Clinic, she has done an externship with the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Cheyenne.


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