In 2003, James Comer received a sentence of 75 years in prison, with more than 68 years without parole, for his role in four robberies and a felony murder that he committed as a 17-year-old. After we challenged that sentence the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Mr. Comer. (Comer I)
At that hearing, we presented compelling evidence that Mr. Comer had matured over the years. Indeed, Dr. Richard Dudley, Jr. a psychiatrist, found that Mr. Comer had been rehabilitated and could achieve no further benefit from prison. Former Governor McGreevey presented the court a reentry plan, detailing precise and thorough arrangements for Mr. Comer’s housing, employment, and social, psychological, logistical, and spiritual support upon release. The court credited these witnesses and resentenced Mr. Comer to a term of 30 years, all of which had to be served without parole. The court pointed out that, under current law, that was the lowest sentence it could impose.
We filed an appeal in which we argued that the mandatory nature of that sentence – were judges cannot impose a lesser sentence, regardless of the evidence of immaturity that they receive – constituted cruel and unusual punishment when applied to people under 18.
The Court agreed that the murder statute, because it did not provide young people an opportunity to demonstrate that they had matured or had been rehabilitated raised constitutional concerns. To avoid that constitutional problem, the Court read the statute to allow people under 18 who had received long sentences to petition courts for look back hearings after 20 years. At those hearings, if a defendant demonstrated rehabilitation, they could receive a period of parole ineligibility of no less than 20 years.
The Court ordered Mr. Comer, again, resentenced.