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Kimbrough v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 6, 2017

KIMBROUGH
v.
THE STATE.

          NAHMIAS, Justice.

         Benny Kimbrough appeals the trial court's order denying his 2015 motion to vacate as void his sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, which was imposed under OCGA § 17-10-7 (b) for a murder he committed in 2004 after being convicted of kidnapping in Florida in 1994. We affirm.

         1. On February 24, 2005, a Clayton County grand jury indicted

         Kimbrough for malice murder and other crimes in connection with the strangling death of Ramatoulie Demba in July 2004. On February 1, 2006, the State filed a notice to have Kimbrough sentenced as a recidivist under OCGA § 17-10-7. At a trial from February 13 to 20, 2006, the jury found Kimbrough guilty on all counts, and on March 7, 2006, he was sentenced to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder pursuant to OCGA § 17-10-7 (b) due to his prior conviction in Florida for kidnapping.[1] In April 2007, this Court affirmed Kimbrough's convictions on direct appeal. See Kimbrough v. State, 281 Ga. 885 (644 S.E.2d 125) (2007).

         More than eight years later, in August 2015, Kimbrough filed a motion to correct void sentence, arguing that his sentence of life without parole for murder was void under the sentencing scheme in effect at the time of Demba's murder. Kimbrough claimed that Georgia law in 2004 did not authorize a sentence of life without parole for capital felonies like murder and, alternatively, that the State's filing of a notice of intent to seek the death penalty was a prerequisite to a sentence of life without parole for murder. On November 18, 2015, the trial court denied Kimbrough's motion. He then filed this appeal.

         2. Kimbrough first contends that his sentence of life without parole is void under Funderburk v. State, 276 Ga. 554 (580 S.E.2d 234) (2003). Funderburk was sentenced to life without parole pursuant to OCGA § 17-10-7 (c), a recidivist provision applying to fourth-time felony offenders, for a murder that occurred in January 2000. See Funderburk, 276 Ga. at 554 n.1. At the time of that murder, § 17-10-7 (c) applied only to the commission of "a felony . . . other than a capital felony, " and murder is a capital felony, so that subsection did not authorize Funderburk's sentence.[2] On direct appeal, this Court affirmed Funderburk's murder conviction but vacated his sentence of life without parole and remanded the case to the trial court with direction to enter a legal sentence. See Funderburk, 276 Ga. at 556. See also Miller v. State, 283 Ga. 412, 417 & n.15 (658 S.E.2d 765) (2008).

         Kimbrough, however, was sentenced as a recidivist under OCGA § 17-10-7 (b), addressing second-time offenders for "serious violent felon[ies], " not § 17-10-7 (c) like Funderburk. When Kimbrough murdered Demba in July 2004, § 17-10-7 (b) authorized a sentence of life without parole for "a serious violent felony" like murder if the defendant previously had been convicted in Georgia of a "serious violent felony" or had "been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of a crime which if committed in this state would be a serious violent felony."[3] Kimbrough does not dispute that his 1994 kidnapping conviction in Florida was for a crime that if committed in Georgia would be a serious violent felony.[4] OCGA § 17-10-7 (c) begins with the phrase "[e]xcept as provided in subsection (b), " and we explained in Funderburk that statutory provisions other than § 17-10-7 (c) authorized a sentence of life without parole for murder, including specifically § 17-10-7 (b):

Although a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole may be imposed for murder, either as a recidivist sentence under OCGA § 17-10-7 (b) (2), which requires that the defendant be previously convicted of a serious violent felony (see OCGA § 17-10-6.1 (a)), or as an alternative sentence when the death penalty is sought (see OCGA § 17-10-31.1), neither of those circumstances is present in this case.

Funderburk, 276 Ga. at 555 n.2. See also Henry v. State, 279 Ga. 615, 618 (619 S.E.2d 609) (2005) (holding, with a "compare" citation of Funderburk, that "OCGA § 17-10-7 (b) authorized the trial court to impose life imprisonment without parole for [a 1997] murder, so long as [the defendant] was previously convicted of a 'serious violent felony' as defined in OCGA § 17-10-6.1 (a)"). 3. Kimbrough also contends that, even assuming OCGA § 17-10-7 (b) authorized his sentence of life without parole for murder, his sentence is still void, pointing to opinions of this Court and the Court of Appeals that included some broad statements suggesting that a sentence of life without parole was available for murders committed before April 29, 2009, only if the State had sought the death penalty.[5] These cases begin with State v. Ingram, 266 Ga. 324 (467 S.E.2d 523) (1996), where this Court said:

We conclude from a consideration of the Act [Ga. L. 1993, p. 1654] as a whole that the Legislature intended the sentence of life without parole be considered and imposed only when seeking the death penalty. This conclusion is further reinforced by Section 9 of the Act, which expressly provides that "[n]o person shall be sentenced to life without parole unless such person could have received the death penalty under the laws of this state. . . ." The unavoidable result of the legislative enactment is to bar the State from seeking life without parole unless the State has filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty.

Id. at 326. In Johnson v. State, 280 Ga.App. 341 (634 S.E.2d 134) (2006), the Court of Appeals said:

Johnson contends the trial court erred by sentencing him to serve a life sentence without parole because the Supreme Court of Georgia held in [Ingram] that a life sentence without parole was authorized only in cases in which the State first sought the death penalty. We must agree.

Id. at 346. In Williams v. State, 291 Ga. 19 (727 S.E.2d 95) (2012), this Court said, citing Ingram:

Prior to April 29, 2009, a person who was convicted of murder could either be sentenced to death or life in prison with the possibility of parole. Life sentences without the possibility of parole were only imposed in those ...

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