Supreme Court ruling will affect NC teens sentenced to life in prison

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Supreme Court in Washington (AP)

RALEIGH, N.C. — A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday striking down automatic life sentences without parole for youths convicted of murder means North Carolina sentencing laws will be revisited and dozens of offenders could get a chance to eventually seek their release.

The high court voted 5-4 to throw out mandatory life in prison without parole for people who committed murder before they were 18.

The sentence, according to the majority opinion, violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Another Supreme Court ruling striking down several provisions in Arizona’s tough illegal immigration law also will alter expectations of Republican lawmakers at the General Assembly who were interested in passing similar restrictions in 2013.

North Carolina is one of nearly 30 states that make life without parole the mandatory sentence for some form of murder for young people, according to the ruling. As of May 31, 25 people were in state prisons serving life without parole for first-degree murder for crimes committed before they turned 18, according to the state Division of Adult Correction.

Juveniles already can’t receive the death penalty or life in prison without parole for crimes that did not involve killing.

David Lagos, a senior research and policy associate at the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, said legislators likely will have to create some post-conviction procedure to allow a jury or judge to determine the appropriate sentence. That sentence could still be life in prison without parole as long as that sentence is no longer mandated by state law. Lawmakers could choose to require a set period of incarceration as an option.

The procedure could be similar to sentencing hearings in capital cases, at which juries determine whether a convicted adult offender will receive a death sentence or life in prison. Those hearings often include witnesses and other evidence.

The future of the prisoners who committed their crimes before turning 18 is unclear, Lagos said. There’s a method for reviewing where a ruling that is based on constitutional rights is applied retroactively.

“That is going to have to be litigated,” Lagos said.

Monday’s ruling also could apply to a number of pending cases involving young people accused of first-degree murder and others who were convicted but are now appealing their convictions, according Tamar Birckhead, an associate law professor at the UNC School of Law.

The ruling also could help attorneys of young defendants to challenge state law requirements that juvenile cases be transferred to adult court, Birckhead wrote on her website on juvenile justice issues.

Credit: The Associated Press.

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