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Split North Carolina Supreme Court rulings declares sentences excluding parole for over 40 years unconstitutional for juveniles


Last week, as reported in this local article, the Supreme Court of North Carolina issues two notable opinions placing a notable limit on sentences for juvenile offenders.  Here are the basics:

Juveniles convicted of the most violent crimes in North Carolina cannot spend more than 40 years behind bars before becoming eligible for parole.  The N.C. Supreme Court made that determination Friday in a pair of 4-3 decisions.  The court’s four Democratic justices ruled in favor of the defendants in both cases.  The three Republican justices dissented.

In State v. Conner, Democratic justices determined that a 15-year-old convicted of rape and murder faced an excessive prison sentence.

According to Justice Michael Morgan’s majority opinion, Riley Dawson Conner pleaded guilty to raping his aunt outside her home in 2016, then killing her “with blows from a shovel.” He then left her dead body in a wooded area near her home.

Under the original consecutive sentences on rape and murder charges, Conner would have reached the age of 60 before having the chance to seek parole. Such a lengthy sentence would violate federal court precedents involving juvenile offenders, Morgan argued. Instead he and his fellow Democratic justices set a new 40-year maximum prison sentence before a juvenile offender would become eligible for parole….

Republican Justice Phil Berger Jr. rejected the argument. He accused Democratic justices of writing the 40-year maximum sentence into law.  “[T]he majority darts into the legislative lane, usurping legislative authority by enacting its new law simply because they find this result ‘desirable’ for violent juveniles,” Berger wrote in dissent….

Democratic and Republican justices also split in State v. Kelliher.  As with the Conner case, the court’s majority ruled that defendant James Ryan Kelliher should serve no more than 40 years in prison for murders committed when he was 17.

All of the opinions in the Connor and Kelliher cases make for interesting reads. From a quick review, I was struck by the fact that the Connor ruling suggests that both the US and North Carolina constitutions supported the 40-year cap announced by the court. But the Kelliher ruling more expressly relies on the NC constitution as revealed in this paragraph from near the start of the opinion:

After careful review, we hold that it violates both the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 27 of the North Carolina Constitution to sentence a juvenile homicide offender who has been determined to be “neither incorrigible nor irredeemable” to life without parole.  Furthermore, we conclude that any sentence or combination of sentences which, considered together, requires a juvenile offender to serve more than forty years in prison before becoming eligible for parole is a de facto sentence of life without parole within the meaning of article I, section 27 of the North Carolina Constitution because it deprives the juvenile of a genuine opportunity to demonstrate he or she has been rehabilitated and to establish a meaningful life outside of prison.  Thus, Kelliher’s sentence, which requires him to serve fifty years in prison before becoming eligible for parole, is a de facto sentence of life without parole under article I, section 27.  Because the trial court affirmatively found that Kelliher was “neither incorrigible nor irredeemable,” he could not constitutionally receive this sentence.



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