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IN RE: VASSELL, NO. 13-284

Decided: May 6, 2014

The Fourth Circuit denied Tadd Vassell’s (Vassell) motion for leave to file a successive motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to challenge his mandatory life sentence without parole.

In 1997 Vassell received a life sentence without parole for conspiracy to traffic controlled substances.  Vassell became involved with the conspiracy when he was a seventeen-year-old, and his involvement continued until he was almost nineteen.  Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, federal prisoners may file one motion to set aside or reduce a sentence after final judgment; Vassell’s first § 2255 motion was denied.  In order to file successive motions, prisoners must first obtain the authorization of a court of appeals, and must also satisfy the gate-keeping requirements of § 2244.  Section 2244 requires that successive motions contain either “a new rule of constitutional law, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court, that was previously unavailable” or “newly discovered evidence.”  Vassell filed a motion for leave to file a successive § 2255 motion based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).  In Miller, the Supreme Court held that, when imposed on juveniles, mandatory life sentences without parole for homicide are unconstitutional.

The Court denied Vassell’s motion for leave because the holding from Miller, while “a new rule of constitutional law,” applies to juvenile homicide offenders, not non-homicide offenders.  Rather, Vassell’s potential right to resentencing, assuming that he actually qualifies as a juvenile offender, became available after the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that imposing a life sentence without parol on a juvenile offender convicted of a non-homicide is unconstitutional.  However, the statute of limitations for § 2255 motions is one year, and the Graham decision was published more than a year prior to Vassell’s motion for leave.  The Court noted that while § 2244 requires only a new rule of constitutional law or newly discovered evidence for the Court to grant leave for a successive § 2255 motion, the statute does not require the Court “to authorize a successive § 2255 motion that is plainly barred as a matter of law.”  Therefore, because Vassell’s § 2255 motion would necessarily rely on the holding from Graham, which was decided more than one year prior to Vassell’s motion for leave, the statute of limitations had already run.

Full Opinion

-Amanda K. Reasoner