New Jersey Supreme Court Overhauls Juvenile Sentencing for Homicide Convictions

In State v. James Comer (A-42-20/) and State v. James C. Zarate (A-43-20/084516), decided January 10, 2021, the Supreme Court of New Jersey overhauled the framework for sentencing juveniles convicted as adults under the state’s homicide statute. Under the court’s holding, juvenile offenders convicted under the law will be permitted to petition for a review of their sentence after they have served two decades in prison.

Facts of State v. Cormer

In 2000, James Comer and two others participated in four armed robberies. During the second robbery, an accomplice shot and killed a robbery victim. At the time, Comer was 17 years old. Comer was sentenced in 2004 to an aggregate term of 75 years in prison with 68.25 years of parole ineligibility. In State v. Zuber, 227 N.J. 422, 451-53 (2017), the New Jersey Supreme Court asked the trial court to conduct a new sentencing hearing in Comer’s case and to consider the factors set forth in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 478 (2012).

On remand, the trial court noted that factors were present, including the environment in which Comer grew up, which made “[t]he reality of criminal behavior . . . inescapable,” and the fact that Comer had “shown an ability to be rehabilitated.” The trial judge nevertheless imposed the mandatory minimum sentence for felony murder — 30 years in prison without the possibility of parole. The court declined to find the statute unconstitutional as applied to Comer and added that a 30-year period of parole ineligibility was “appropriate in this case.” The Appellate Division upheld Comer’s sentence, and the New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification.

Facts of State v. Zarate

Defendant James Zarate was convicted of participating in a brutal murder with his older brother. At the time of the offense in 2005, Zarate was 14 years old. For the murder conviction, the court sentenced Zarate to life imprisonment, subject to an 85-percent period of parole ineligibility under the No Early Release Act (NERA), with consecutive sentences for two additional offenses. The Appellate Division affirmed but remanded on a discrete issue, and it directed the trial court to address mitigating factor thirteen, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(b)(13) —“The conduct of a youthful defendant was substantially influenced by another person more mature than the defendant” — which the court did not consider earlier.

On remand, the court rejected mitigating factor thirteen, finding no proof that Zarate had been influenced by his older brother. The court addressed the Miller factors but found they did not favor Zarate, stressing his intelligence, supportive family, participation in his own defense, and prison infractions. The court resentenced Zarate to life in prison subject to NERA for murder but did not impose any consecutive sentences.

On a second appeal, the Appellate Division again reversed and remanded, instructing “the trial court to reconsider its proportionality analysis in light of” the United States Supreme Court’s 2016 determination that Miller applies retroactively. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification and summarily remanded for resentencing in light of State v. Zuber, in which the New Jersey Supreme Court extended Miller to sentences that are the practical equivalent of life without parole. After weighing other statutory factors, the court resentenced Zarate for murder to 50 years in prison. Consistent with NERA, Zarate must serve 85 percent of that term before he is eligible for parole. Zarate appealed, and the Appellate Division modified and affirmed his sentence.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and remanded both cases for resentencing. The court declined to find that a mandatory sentence of at least 30 years without parole, which N.J.S.A. 2C:11- 3(b)(1) requires, is unconstitutional as applied to juveniles. However, it did find that “the statutory framework for sentencing juveniles, if not addressed, will contravene Article I, Paragraph 12 of the State Constitution.”

According to the court, the length of the sentence was not the key issue. It described the concern as follows:

Children lack maturity, can be impetuous, are more susceptible to pressure from others, and often fail to appreciate the long-term consequences of their actions,” Rabner wrote. “They are also more capable of change than adults. Yet we know as well that some juveniles — who commit very serious crimes and show no signs of maturity or rehabilitation over time — should serve lengthy periods of incarceration. The issue before the Court is how to meld those truths in a way that conforms to the Constitution and contemporary standards of decency. In other words, how to impose lengthy sentences on juveniles that are not only just but that also account for a simple reality: we cannot predict, at a juvenile’s young age, whether a person can be rehabilitated and when an individual might be fit to reenter society.

To remedy the constitutional issues, juvenile offenders convicted under the law will be allowed to petition for a review of their sentence after they have served two decades in prison. At that time, judges will assess the factors the U.S. Supreme Court set forth in Miller, which the New Jersey Supreme Court noted are designed to consider the “mitigating qualities of youth.”

After evaluating all the evidence, the trial court would have discretion to affirm or reduce a defendant’s original base sentence within the statutory range, and to reduce the parole bar below the statutory limit to no less than 20 years. The New Jersey Supreme Court directed trial courts to explain and make a thorough record of their findings to ensure fairness and facilitate review. Here, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that both Defendants are entitled to be resentenced and remanded the cases back to the trial court.

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