THERMOPOLIS — A hearing scheduled for June 26 in Hot Springs District Court regarding the sentence of James Wiley has been canceled, following the dismissal of Wiley’s motion to correct an illegal sentence.
In his motion, Wiley alleged that the sentence imposed on him as a juvenile violated established constitutional standards. Special Deputy Hot Springs County Attorney Michael Blonigen filed a response to Wiley’s motion, arguing that his sentence does not constitute one of life without parole and that he would be also ineligible for parole due to an escape attempt. Blonigen further requested summary disposition of Wiley’s pending motion.
Though no formal court order was available at press time, Blonigen confirmed last week that the court did, in fact, grant his motion to summarily dispose of Wiley’s motion, based on the grounds and argument presented by Blonigen.
According to background on the case, on November 24, 1990, Wiley killed his stepmother, Becky Wiley, and his stepbrothers Tyrone, Willie and Jessie; all three boys were in elementary school. Wiley killed them in the family home with a shotgun. The last boy was wounded and ran outside, but Wiley pulled him back into the house and shot him in the head, reloading the shotgun to do so. Wiley then attempted to burn the house down in order to eliminate evidence.
Wiley entered his guilty plea on Dec. 2, 1991, admitting he thought about the killings in advance and that he attempted to burn the house down.
Shortly after the incident, Wiley was arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder, first-degree arson and a burglary that took place the night before the murders. In his plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder, one count of second-degree murder and first-degree arson. The burglary was dismissed.
He was sentenced to life, as required by law, on the counts of first-degree murder and 20 years to life on the second-degree murder charge. The sentences were ordered served concurrently. On the arson charge he was sentenced to 18-20 years, served consecutively to the murder sentence. The sentence was deemed by the judge to commence on Nov. 24, 1990; Wiley was 15 at the time.
The history goes on to note Michael’s problems while in confinement, including his escaping from the Wyoming State Penitentiary when he was 20. He was subsequently convicted on the escape charge and given an additional sentence by the Second Judicial District Court of Carbon County.
On June 17, 2013, Wiley filed the motion to correct illegal sentence, alleging the imposed sentence was unconstitutional. His claim rests on the claim that a life sentence without parole was declared unconstitutional except under special circumstances, when the convicted offender is under the age of 18 at the time of his or her crimes.
That principle was extended to include long-term sentences that are the functional equivalent of life without parole.
In Wyoming the principles were adopted and applied retroactively to existing sentences subject to collateral attack. The Wyoming Supreme Court further held a statute, which provides for parole after 25 years on any life sentence on offenders who committed their offense, applied retroactively.
Wiley’s life sentence was converted to life with parole after 25 years, by operation of law. It’s argued in Blonigen’s motion that no further action was required, and the court made clear the ability for the parole board to grant parole is based on current law governing parole, with no reference to as to when sentence was imposed.
“With the stroke of a pen,” Bolingen argues, “[Wiley] was made eligible for parole after 25 years — 6.25 years for each innocent person he slaughtered.” Therefore, the life sentence imposed on him cannot be an illegal sentence.
The motion further argues that sentences received by Wiley must be considered in the aggregate, meaning consecutive sentences result in the functional equivalent of a life sentence.
Present sentences require Wiley to serve 18-20 years consecutive to the sentences imposed for murder. That sentence could be modified by application of statutory good time.
Based on those rules, the average inmate serves only two-thirds of the minimum sentence, or 12 years in Wiley’s case.
At the end of 12 years, Wiley’s net sentence would be 37 years; he would be 52 years old upon release. In a country where life expectancy for white males exceeds 70 years, Blonigen argued, that cannot be deemed the functional equivalent of a life sentence. Even at the full minimum sentence, he would be 58 when released, and at the maximum he would be 60. If the resulting sentence is not a “de facto” life sentence, Blonigen stated, it cannot be deemed illegal.
Based on facts presented, Blonigen argued there is no reason to have a lengthy hearing as the imposed sentence simply doesn’t amount to life without parole under current law, and there is no need for further hearing unless the court finds the existing sentence is equivalent to life without parole.
If the court does find the sentence is equivalent to life without parole, a new sentencing hearing is necessary.
Blonigen further argued that Wiley’s case is unique because regardless of the court’s ruling, he would not be parole-eligible because of his escape when he was 20, as there are no provisions that require parole be granted despite behavior while incarcerated.
Blonigen noted that, under Wyoming Statute 7-13-402, a prisoner is not eligible for parole on a sentence if, while serving the sentence, he or she escaped, attempted to escape or assisted others to escape. Under this statute, Wiley is prevented from ever being paroled on the life sentence he was serving when he tried to escape. He can challenge parole board actions, but not through current proceedings, and discussion of whether the existing sentence is equivalent to life without parole is moot without foundation or effect.
By Mark Dykes
Thermopolis Independent Record Via Wyoming News Exchange