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Sparks v. United States

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, Waco Division

March 19, 2018

TONY SPARKS
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

          MEMORANDUM OPINION REGARDING RESENTENCING

          LEE YEAKEL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         On April 17.2000. Tony Sparks pleaded guilty to carjacking. On March 22.2001. the district court sentenced Sparks to life in prison. On November 18, 2016, with the permission of the Filth Circuit, Sparks fded an Unopposed Successive Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (#509) on the basis of the Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). On January 17, 2017. the parties filed ajoint motion in which the parties agreed that Sparks was entitled to resentencing under Miller. This court granted Sparks's motion based on Miller.[1] The court held a resentencing hearing from February 5 through 7 and 21 through 22, 2018. With the agreement of the parties, the court conducted the hearing in Austin, Texas.

         I. Background

         The Fifth Circuit summarized the factual background of this case in its opinion in United States v. Bernard, 299 F.3d 467 (5th Cir. 2002), affirming the convictions of two others charged in connection with the same crime:

On June 20, 1999, Christopher Andre Vialva, Christopher Lewis and Tony Sparks, members of a gang in Killeen, Texas, met to plan a robbery. The three gang members decided on the following plan: they would ask someone for a ride, get in the car and pull a gun on the victim, steal the victim's money and personal effects, obtain the pin No. for the victim's ATM card, force the victim into the trunk of the car and drive somewhere to abandon the car with the victim locked in the trunk.

Id. at 471.

         That night, using a .22 caliber handgun that belonged to Sparks, Vialva, Lewis, and Sparks attempted to locate a victim for their plan, but were unsuccessful. Around 2:00 a.m. on June 21, a Killeen police officer made contact with Vialva, Lewis, and Sparks. They discarded the gun into nearby bushes. The officer took Lewis and Sparks back to the Killeen police station, because they were juveniles and were in violation of the Killeen juvenile-curfew law. Sparks's mother, Daniele Brown, picked them up from the police station. Vialva went back later in the evening to retrieve the gun.

The following day, Vialva, Lewis and Sparks enlisted two fellow gang members, Brandon Bernard and Terry Brown, to assist in the carjacking plan. Initially, the group only had one gun, a "tiny .22 pistol" that they considered "too small to frighten anyone." The group decided that a second gun was necessary. Bernard owned a Glock .40 caliber handgun that he had lent to Gregory Lynch. Vialva, Bernard, Lewis, Sparks and Brown drove to Lynch's house and obtained Bernard's gun. The group then set out in search of a victim.
Sometime after 2:00 p.m. on the afternoon of June 21, Bernard drove Vialva, Brown, Lewis, and Sparks to a local supermarket to find a victim. Having had no luck there, the group continued their search by driving around parking lots at other local stores.
The search ended at a convenience store in Killeen, where they found Todd Bagley using a pay phone.
Todd Bagley and his wife, Stacie, were youth ministers from Iowa. Before moving to Iowa, Todd had been stationed at Fort Hood, where the couple attended Grace Christian Church and worked with the youth group. About a week before their deaths, the Bagleys returned to Killeen to visit friends and to attend a revival meeting at the church. On Sunday, June 21, they attended a morning worship service and had lunch with friends. Afterward, Todd stopped at "Mickey's" convenience store to use the payphone, while Stacie waited for him in their car.
Lewis and Sparks approached Todd and asked him for a ride to their uncle's house. Todd agreed. Vialva, who was standing nearby, got in the backseat of the Bagleys' car with Lewis and Sparks. Todd and Stacie occupied the front seat. Vialva gave Todd directions, and then pulled out the .40 caliber gun, pointed it at Todd and told him that "the plans have changed." At the same time, Sparks pointed the .22 handgun at Stacie. On Vialva's orders, Todd stopped the car, and the Bagleys got out. The gang stole Todd's wallet, Stacie's purse and the Bagleys' jewelry. Vialva demanded the pin numbers for the Bagleys' ATM cards, and then forced the Bagleys into the trunk of their car.
After locking the Bagleys in the trunk, Vialva drove around for several hours. He went to ATM machines to withdraw money from the Bagleys' account, but was largely unsuccessful because the Bagleys had less than one hundred dollars on deposit. Vialva drove to a "Wendy's" where Lewis and Sparks used the Bagleys' money to purchase some food. Vialva then attempted to pawn Stacie's wedding ring, and stopped at a tobacco store to purchase cigars and cigarettes.
While they were locked in the trunk, the Bagleys spoke with Lewis and Sparks through the rear panel of the car. Lewis testified that the Bagleys asked them questions about God, Jesus, and church. The Bagleys told Lewis and Sparks that they were not wealthy people, but that they were blessed by their faith in Jesus. The Bagleys informed Lewis and Sparks about the revival meeting at Grace Christian, a church which Lewis said he had attended. Urging them to have faith, the Bagleys advised Lewis and Sparks that God's blessings were available to anyone. After this conversation, Sparks told Vialva he no longer wanted to go through with the crime. Vialva, however, insisted on killing the Bagleys and burning their car to eliminate the witnesses and the gangs' fingerprints.
Vialva drove to his house. While he was inside, the Bagleys had another conversation about God with Lewis and Sparks. By this time, the victims had been locked in the trunk for several hours. The Bagleys pleaded with Lewis and Sparks for their lives.
Vialva returned to the car with a ski mask and some additional clothing. Vialva, Lewis, and Sparks then met Bernard and Brown, and Vialva repeated that he had to kill the Bagleys because they had seen his face.

Id. at 471-72.

         At this point, Sparks told the others that he needed to be taken to his house, because his 8:00 p.m. curfew was approaching. He indicated that, because he had been in violation of the curfew the previous night, his mother would be particularly upset if he violated it again. The group dropped off Sparks at his house. Sparks took the Bagleys' jewelry with him, and Vialva told Sparks they could pawn the jewelry together the next day. Vialva also requested that Sparks leave his .22 handgun with Vialva. After initially refusing, Sparks agreed.

Bernard and Brown set off to purchase fuel to burn the Bagleys' car. Vialva, Bernard, Lewis and Brown drove to an isolated spot in the Belton Lake Recreation Area on the Fort Hood military reservation. Vialva parked the Bagleys' car on top of a little hill. Brown and Bernard poured lighter fluid on the interior of the car while the Bagleys sang and prayed in the trunk.
According to Brown, Stacie's last words were "Jesus loves you" and "Jesus, take care of us." Vialva crudely cussed at her in reply. Vialva put on his mask, and told Lewis to open the trunk. Vialva then shot Todd in the head with the .40 caliber gun, killing him instantly. Vialva shot Stacie in the right side of her face, knocking her unconscious, but not killing her. Bernard set the car on fire. An autopsy later revealed that Stacie died from smoke inhalation.
Vialva, Bernard, Lewis and Brown ran down the hill to Bernard's car. Their getaway was foiled when the car slid off the road into a muddy ditch. Local law enforcement officers, informed of a fire, arrived at the scene while the assailants were trying to push the car out of the ditch. When firemen discovered the bodies in the trunk of the Bagleys' burning car, the four were arrested.

Id. at 472-73. Approximately two weeks later, while police were executing an unrelated search warrant at Sparks's house, they found the Bagleys' jewelry and Sparks was taken into custody.

         Sparks has been in custody since August 2, 1999. On April 17, 2000, Sparks pleaded guilty to carjacking. On July 31, 2000, while imprisoned at the Bell County Juvenile Detention Center awaiting sentencing, Sparks participated in an escape attempt with another inmate, Christopher Kirvin. Kirvin lured a correctional officer into Kirvin's cell and choked her, taking her keys. She regained consciousness and began screaming. At that point Sparks, in an adjacent cell, began flushing his toilet repeatedly to mask her screams.

         At the time Sparks was sentenced, the federal sentencing guidelines had not yet been ruled advisory by the Supreme Court. See United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 259 (2005). Sparks's offense level and criminal history, including the adjustments for his role in the escape attempt, led to a range including just one sentence: life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time of the offense, Sparks was 16 years old. The Guidelines at that time stated that "[a]ge (including youth) is not ordinarily relevant in determining whether a sentence should be outside the applicable guideline range." U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 5H1.1 (2000). On March 22, 2001, in accordance with the Guidelines, the district court sentenced Sparks to life in prison.

         Vialva and Bernard were tried, found guilty of first-degree murder, carjacking, and conspiracy to commit murder, and sentenced to death. Lewis and Brown testified at the trial of Vialva and Bernard. As a result of their cooperation, Lewis and Brown signed plea agreements whereby they pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder, aiding and abetting; one count of carjacking; and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence. The district court sentenced both Lewis and Brown to 248 months.

         II. Analysis

         A. Juvenile-Sentencing Jurisprudence

         In recent years, the Supreme Court has addressed juvenile-sentencing issues in several cases, beginning with Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005). In Roper, the Court found that juveniles were not eligible for the death penalty because of their diminished culpability and their capacity for change. In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Court held that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole in crimes that did not involve homicide. In Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), the Court held that juveniles could not be sentenced to mandatory life without parole. In Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), the Court held that the Miller decision was retroactive to cases on collateral review.

         In each of these decisions, the Court addressed the rationale for punishing juveniles differently than adults. In Miller, the Court summarized the state of its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence as it relates to juveniles. As the Court explained:

Roper and Graham establish that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, we explained, "they are less deserving of the most severe punishments." Graham, 560 U.S. at 68. Those cases relied on three significant gaps between juveniles and adults. First, children have a "lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, " leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Roper, 543 U.S. at 569. Second, children "are more vulnerable ... to negative influences and outside pressures, " including from their family and peers; they have limited "control over their own environment" and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. Id. at 570. And third, a child's character is not ...

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