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Where court is unsure, mandatory life is unconstitutional

 

For juvenile murderers, being sentenced to spend their natural lives in prison is a judgment reserved for those whom the court has explicitly found can never be rehabilitated—the “irreparably corrupt” and “permanently incorrigible.”

So where a Mecklenburg County trial court found “no certain prognosis” for a defendant who was 17 when he killed two people, the court erred when it sentenced the minor to life without the possibility of parole, the state Court of Appeals ruled Sept. 18.

In State v. Williams, a three-judge panel unanimously remanded the case, ordering that the trial court sentence Montrez Williams to two consecutive life sentences with the possibility of parole.

“Because the trial court made an explicit finding contrary to a determination that Defendant is one of those rarest of juvenile offenders for whom rehabilitation is impossible and a worthless endeavor, we hold the trial court erred by imposing a life sentence without the possibility of parole,” Judge Lucy Inman wrote for the court.

A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s office, Laura Brewer, declined to comment on the case.

Williams’ attorney, assistant appellate defender Kathryn VandenBerg, said that the Court of Appeals simply followed precedence backed by science.

“The Court’s reasoning is based on sound neuroscience—children’s brains are not fully developed until after the teenage years,” VandenBerg wrote in an email. “The U.S. Supreme Court specifically held that, unless it is found that a child is irreparably corrupt, he may not be sentenced to life without parole.”

I’d just be speculating

Williams was convicted of two counts of murder in 2011. In 2012, the Court of Appeals upheld his conviction and sentence, and the North Carolina Supreme Court denied his petition for review. But later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory LWOP (life without the possibility of parole) sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Weeks later, North Carolina amended its sentencing statute, laying out mitigating factors that must be considered when sentencing juveniles convicted of murder, including the offender’s age at the time of the crime, immaturity, intellectual capacity, prior record, mental health, and the likelihood he would benefit from rehabilitation while incarcerated.

After the Miller decision, Williams sought to be resentenced. He presented mitigating evidence at his resentencing hearing, and the trial court found that “the speculation” of Williams’ potential for rehabilitation can be given only minimal weight because there is “no certain prognosis of Defendant’s possibility of rehabilitation.”

The trial judge again sentenced Williams to two consecutive sentences of life without parole.

There must be no hope

On appeal, Williams argued that the trial court’s finding that his potential for rehabilitation is speculative removes him from the class of juveniles who, under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, are eligible for life without parole. After Miller, the high court found in Montgomery v. Louisiana that life in prison is disproportionate for all “but the rarest of children”—those for whom “rehabilitation is impossible.”

Miller stated that because of juveniles’ diminished culpability and greater chance for reform—while not providing specific criteria to be considered—occasions where juveniles would appropriately be sentenced to life without parole would be rare.

In State v. James, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld constitutionality of the state’s amended sentencing statute, finding that it did not create a presumption of a LWOP sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, and thus did not conflict with Miller. Rather, it offers courts two equal options—life with the possibility of parole, or without that possibility.

The James court also found that a trial court is required to make an explicit finding that a juvenile is “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible” before it can sentence him to life without parole. The question for the sentencing court becomes: Is this offender the “rarest” of juveniles who shows permanent incorrigibility?

Inman noted Judge Donna Stroud’s definitions of “permanent” and “irreparable” in a ruling earlier this year in State v. Sims as “forever” and “beyond improvement,” respectively.

“In other words,” Inman wrote, quoting Stroud, “the trial court should be satisfied that in 25 years, in 35 years, in 55 years—when the defendant may be in his seventies or eighties—he will likely still remain incorrigible or corrupt, just as he was as a teenager, so that even then parole is not appropriate.”

Stroud and Judge Linda McGee concurred with Inman in the decision.

The 14-page decision is State v. Williams (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-292-18). A digest of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher

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