Man sentenced to de facto life sentence without parole will get new sentencing hearing that factors in his maturity at the time
NEWARK – In a groundbreaking ruling in an American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey case, a New Jersey judge found that people convicted of crimes as juveniles cannot be sentenced to de facto life without the possibility of parole without carefully considering the role their youth played in their crimes.
The case involved James Comer, who was sentenced at age 17 to serve 75 years in prison, more than 68 without parole. Essex County Superior Court Judge Thomas R. Vena in a ruling Friday, May 8, concurred with the ACLU-NJ that because Comer will be 86 years old when he first becomes eligible for a parole hearing, he had effectively been serving a life sentence. As a result of the ruling, Comer will be resentenced.
“The judge adopted the Supreme Court’s axiomatic observation that children are not just miniature adults. The unique nature of their brain chemistry requires that they be treated differently than adults,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “This ruling clearly affirms that before a court can condemn a child to die in prison, it must consider the things about youth that make these extreme sentences so ill-suited to juveniles.”
The ACLU-NJ argued that a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions proscribed courts from sentencing minors to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, including de facto life sentences. Consistent with these cases, Comer’s resentencing will take into account the immaturity and impetuousness that accompanies youth; his home environment at the time; the circumstances of the offense, the deficiencies of young people in handling real-world functions, such as dealing with attorneys or police officers; and the possibility of Comer’s rehabilitation.
While the judge did not share the interpretation that the Supreme Court’s rulings amounted to an absolute rejection of life sentences of minors, the judge did rule that Comer’s sentence was unconstitutional because the judge failed to factor in the hallmark factors of youth involved in his crime.
“This ruling gets New Jersey courts one step closer to the reality that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to die in prison,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg of Gibbons P.C., who along with Joseph A. Pace, also of Gibbons P.C., represented Comer on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “The question isn’t whether Comer deserves to be released – the question is whether Comer and other children charged with serious crimes deserve a meaningful opportunity to obtain release as they mature.”
Mr. Comer, now 31 years old, was sentenced in 2003 for his role in four robberies and a felony murder as a juvenile, with no meaningful consideration given to his youth at the time. Felony murder differs from murder in that if a murder is committed during the commission of a crime, everyone involved in that crime is deemed responsible for the murder, even though they did not actually kill or intend to kill. Although he was not the one who pulled the trigger, Comer received a longer sentence than his two accomplices, one who was charged with the actual killing and the other who was an adult.
The resentencing, which has not yet been scheduled, will take place in Essex County. The State plans to appeal Judge Vena’s decision.