JUVENILE LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE AFTER MILLER v. ALABAMA: A Report of the Phillips Black Project, July 8, 2015

The following is an excerpt from Juvenile Life Without Parole after Miller v. Alabama: A Report of the Phillips Black Project, authored by John Mills and Anna Dorn. It describes the state of the law of juvenile life without parole cases in North Carolina since the U.S. Supreme Court decision Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455  (2012). The authors have assembled similar information for all U.S. jurisdictions.  If you are interested in the full report, please contact them at miller@phillipsblack.org

North Carolina was among the twenty-nine jurisdictions that had mandatory JLWOP at the time of Miller. See Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2474 n.15 (2012). It has since altered its statues to comply with Miller. S.B. 635, 2011 Gen. Assemb. Reg. Sess. (N.C. 2012); N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 15A-1340.19A, 15A-1340.19B, 15A-1340.19C (2012). There are seventy-seven prisoners serving life with parole sentences imposed when they were juveniles and seventy-nine prisoners serving JLWOP sentences in North Carolina.[1]

Prior to Miller, a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder[2] was automatically sentenced to JLWOP. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-17 (2013). Shortly after Miller, the North Carolina legislature amended its laws. See S.B. 635. The amended laws provide that if the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder[3] solely on the basis of the felony murder rule, the sentence shall be life imprisonment with parole. See § 15A-1340.19B(a)(1) (2012). In all other cases, the trial court is directed to hold a hearing to consider any mitigating circumstances, including those related to defendant’s age at the time of the offense, immaturity, and ability to benefit from rehabilitation, echoing the factors prescribed in Miller. See §§ 15A-1340.19B, -19C. Following the hearing, the trial court is directed to make findings regarding the mitigating factors and is given the discretion to sentence the defendant to life imprisonment with or without parole. §§ 15A-1340.19B(a)(2), 15A-1340.19C(a). The new laws are silent as to retroactivity.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has been willing to vacate mandatory JLWOP sentences and remand for resentencing pursuant to Miller and North Carolina’s amended statutes when the case is on direct appeal. See State v. Pemberton, 743 S.E.2d 719, 728 (N.C. Ct. App. 2013); State v. Jefferson, 758 S.E.2d 186 (N.C. Ct. App. 2014) (unpublished). In State v. Lovette, 758 S.E.2d 399, 401 (N.C. Ct. App. 2014), the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld appellant’s JLWOP sentence after a post-Miller resentencing proceeding because the trial court thoroughly weighed all relevant factors.

The North Carolina legislature has amended its laws to comply with Miller and its court of appeals has been willing to resentence defendants charged under the prior statute while their cases are on direct appeal. The issue of Miller’s retroactivity is currently pending before the North Carolina Supreme Court. State v. Young, No. 13-646,[4] relevant to North Carolina’s seventy-nine prisoners serving JLWOP.

[1] According to information provided by the North Carolina Division of Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice, Rehabilitative Programs and Services Section in response to a request for public information.  Notes on file.

[2] In North Carolina, first-degree murder includes murder “perpetrated by means of a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon of mass destruction . . . lying in wait, imprisonment, starving, torture, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing, or [a killing] committed in the perpetration or attempted perpetration [of an enumerated felony].” §14-17(a).

[3] Life with parole means the defendant “shall serve a minimum of 25 years imprisonment prior to becoming eligible for parole.” § 15A-1340.19A.

[4] Young and its companion cases were transferred to the North Carolina Supreme Court “on its own initiative” without further explanation.

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