State v. Zarate

The ACLU-NJ was invited to participate as amicus in a case before the Appellate Division that addresses when juveniles can receive extreme prison sentences. James Zarate was convicted of a murder he committed when he was 14. He originally received a life sentence. After a remand, in light of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Zuber and Comer, he was resentenced to a term of 50 years. The prosecutor and judge in the resentencing believed that that sentence was low enough – but just low enough – to avoid scrutiny as a de facto life sentence.

Our brief addressed several issues related to that sentence and one related to jurisdiction. As to the sentence the brief contended that: Zarate did not receive a hearing that allowed the judge to meaningfully consider the unique disabilities associated with youth (e.g. impetuousness, susceptibility to peer pressure, etc.) and, even if he had, fifty years is still effectively a life sentence.

Additionally, Zarate was waived from juvenile court to adult court as a 14 year old. As a result of legislation signed in 2015, 14 year olds are no longer eligible for waiver. Our brief argued that the law should be given retroactive effect, which would require Zarate to be resentenced in Family Court.


On May 6, 2020, the Appellate Division ruled against Zarate. He filed a Petition for Certification, which is currently pending before the New Jersey Supreme Court.

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