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In determining whether a penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, the courts must view the nature of the offender in the concrete rather than the abstract: although the legislature can define the offense in general terms, each offender is necessarily an individual. This branch of the inquiry therefore focuses on the particular person before the court and asks whether the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the defendant's individual culpability as shown by such factors as his age, prior criminality, personal characteristics, and state of mind.
Defendant Norman Jay Dillon, a 17-year-old high school student, was charged with first degree felony murder and attempted robbery. While attempting to steal marijuana growing from a marijuana farm, Dillon was discovered by the landowner, who carried a shotgun. Fearing that he would be shot, Dillon shot first, killing the landowner. After trial in California state court, the jury found Dillon guilty as charged, although it expressed a reluctance to apply the felony-murder rule to the facts. The trial court, which also stated its belief that the evidence did not support a first degree murder conviction under any theory other than felony murder, initially committed Dillon to the Youth Authority. However, subsequent mandate proceedings resulted in a finding that he was ineligible for commitment to the Youth Authority as a matter of law, and the trial court was directed to vacate the order of commitment. Dillon was thereafter sentenced to life imprisonment in state prison. He appealed his conviction of attempted robbery and first-degree felony murder, arguing that a standing crop of marijuana could not be the subject of a robbery because it was realty, not personalty, and that the felony-murder rule violated due process requirements.
Was Dillon's convictions and sentence proper?
Yes, as to the robbery charge; No, as to the first-degree felony murder charge, and; No, as to the sentence for first-degree felony murder.
The state supreme Court affirmed the judgment as to the attempted robbery conviction, modified the judgment as to the murder conviction by reducing the degree of the crime to second degree murder, and, as so modified, affirmed, and remanded the cause to the trial court with directions to determine whether to recommit Dillon to the Youth Authority. The court first held that a standing crop could be the subject of a robbery and that substantial evidence supported the attempted robbery at issue. As to the felony-murder rule, the court held that it was a creature of statute and hence could not be judicially abrogated. The court also held that the rule did not deny an accused due process of law by relieving the prosecution of the burden of proving malice, since malice was not an element of the crime of felony murder. The court further held, however, that the penalty for first degree felony murder, like all statutory penalties, was subject to the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and also subject to the rule that a punishment was impermissible if it was grossly disproportionate to the offense as defined or as committed, and/or to the individual culpability of the offender. Applying this rule to the attenuated showing of individual culpability in the instant case and to the massive loss of liberty entailed in a life sentence, which was the same punishment that would have been inflicted had Dillon committed premeditated first degree murder, the court held that the penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment.