N.C. Supreme Court creates 40-year maximum prison sentence for juveniles who commit violent crimes

N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby

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  • Two new N.C. Supreme Court decisions set a 40-year maximum prison sentence for violent juvenile offenders, regardless of the number or severity of their crimes.
  • The court's four Democratic justices overruled their three Republican colleagues in both cases.

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.

“The recognition of a forty-year term of incarceration as a reasonable maximum duration of imprisonment to be served by a juvenile offender who has not been deemed by a trial court to be incorrigible or irredeemable, and who is serving a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, is an appropriate length of incarceration prior to parole eligibility which affords such a defendant with a realistic, meaningful, and achievable opportunity for release to parole, while simultaneously setting parole eligibility far enough in the juvenile offender’s future to allow the defendant adequate time to mature, rehabilitate, and develop a record upon which to show a potential readiness for parole,” Morgan wrote.

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. “The majority’s judicial sentencing scheme which introduces de facto life in prison and implements mandatory parole eligibility after forty years in prison is supposedly ‘mandate[d]’ by the state and Federal constitutions. But one toils to locate this fiction in the text of either document or precedent.”

Berger also questions how the new rule would apply to a juvenile offender who commits “multiple violent crimes on multiple days.” “[D]oes the de facto life sentence and mandatory forty-year parole eligibility rationale apply such that they receive a ‘volume discount’?”

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.

“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,” wrote Justice Anita Earls. “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.”

Kelliher had taken part in the 2001 shooting death of a man and his pregnant girlfriend during a drug deal inside the victims’ apartment. Just after the shooting, Kelliher and the actual shooter “spent time using cocaine and marijuana they stole from the apartment and drinking liquor in a park.”

Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote for the dissenting Republican justices. “What range of punishment is appropriate for someone who participates in the brutal execution of multiple people?” Newby asked. “What branch of government is designed to enact criminal justice policy? Today this Court, in a blatant stroke of judicial activism, decides that it will legislate criminal justice policy.”

“It determines the maximum sentence for a seventeen-year-old who killed multiple people is the same as if he had killed only one. It boldly declares that any harsher penalty is unconstitutionally ‘cruel.’ The majority legislates this sentence not through judicial review but by its own determination of ‘evolving societal standards’ and its desire to bring North Carolina in line with its view of international law and what some other states have done. In doing so, the majority casually disregards decades of our precedents and ignores the plain language of various constitutional provisions.”

“The majority’s holding today sets dangerous criminal policy,” Newby warned. “It devalues
human life by artificially capping sentences for offenders who commit multiple murders. Its decision feeds the growing trend of gangs using younger members to do their killings as they recognize the leniency of criminal sentencing of minors. Further, this decision removes any incentive to limit the murder of witnesses at the crime scene.”