N.J. Supreme Court Revamps Life Sentences for Juveniles

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – Juveniles should not be sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled, and ordered resentencing of two men who committed their crimes when they were 17.

Ricky Zuber was sentenced to 110 years in prison for two gang rapes in which he participated in 1981. He was not eligible for parole for 55 years, and the sentence was affirmed on appeals.

James Comer participated in four armed robberies in two days in 2000, in one of which an accomplice shot and killed a victim. Comer was sentenced to 75 years in prison, with no parole for 68 years.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, “that ‘youth and its attendant characteristics’ must be considered at the time a juvenile is sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, [and] should apply to sentences that are the practical equivalent of life without parole to satisfy the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment,” according to the New Jersey Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling.

“The defendants in these appeals committed very serious, violent crimes when they were juveniles,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in the Jan. 11 ruling. However, “because of how young they were at the time of their offenses, both defendants will likely serve more time in jail than an adult sentenced to actual life without parole.”

Miller v. Alabama requires judges to consider the possibility of rehabilitation and the defendant’s immaturity, among other factors, Rabner wrote. In Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “the mitigating qualities of youth,” and the “failure to appreciate risks and consequence,” should be considered when a juvenile is sentenced.

In the Miller case, two 14-year-old boys were convicted of murder — one shot a clerk while robbing a video store, and the other beat a neighbor to death with a baseball bat and set fires to cover up the crime. Both were sentenced to life without parole.

In his 42-page ruling, Rabner wrote that judges should “exercise a heightened level of care” before imposing consecutive sentences, and that because juveniles are more prone to impetuous decisions, harsh punishment is less of a deterrence to their crimes. And life without parole denies criminals the ability to re-enter society, thereby nullifying rehabilitation.

Zuber and others forced a woman at knifepoint to drive to a cemetery, where they raped and threatened to disfigure her, then left her naked at the cemetery. A month later the group, led by Zuber, abducted a 16-year-old girl on her way to school and raped her repeatedly.

Charged as an adult, Zuber was found guilty of ten charges. His 110-year sentence with no parole eligibility for 55 years made him eligible for parole in 2036, when he will be 72 years old.

In Comer’s overnight robbery spree, one of four victims — a 35-year-old father of three — was shot to death, apparently because he had no money to steal.

Comer was charged as an adult and convicted of felony murder, three counts of armed robbery, weapons offenses and theft. His 75-year sentence with no parole eligibility for 68 years made him ineligible for parole until he is 85.

On appeal, an amicus briefs from the Seton Hall University School of Law Center for Social Justice asked that their sentences be reduced to 30 years, so they could qualify for parole when they turn 50 years old or so, and have a chance at life outside of prison. The ACLU and Fair Punishment Project suggested more lenient sentencing guidelines.

In his opinion, Rabner suggested that states consider legislation to review juvenile sentences with lengthy parole eligibility. A number of states, including Montana and West Virginia, have laws that require lesser terms for juvenile parole eligibility or that exempt juveniles outright from sentences of life without parole.

ACLU of New Jersey attorney Alexander Shalon praised the ruling, saying, “A life sentence by another name is still a life sentence.”

The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, which handled both cases, is “disappointed with the decision,” said spokeswoman Katherine Carter, “because it has the potential to require resentencing for an unknown number of defendants.”

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