State v. Young, 369 N.C. 118 (2016)


The defendant’s mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a murder he committed at age seventeen violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment under Miller v. Alabama. In 1999, defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a felony murder conviction that resulted from his involvement in a disputed drug deal that occurred when he was 17-years old. In 2012, defendant filed a motion for appropriate relief challenging his life sentence based on the recent decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012) (mandatory life without parole for a juvenile offender violates the Eighth Amendment). In 2013, the trial court vacated defendant’s life sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing based on its conclusion that Miller applied retroactively to defendant’s sentence. The state sought appellate review and before the appeal was decided, the U.S. Supreme Court filed an opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana, __ U.S. __, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), holding that Miller announced a new substantive rule that applied retroactively to cases on collateral review. In a supplemental brief filed by the state in response to Montgomery, the state argued that defendant was not entitled to resentencing under Miller and Montgomery because defendant’s sentence “is not really life imprisonment without parole.” Instead, the state argued that because G.S. 15A-1380.5 (repealed effective December 1, 1998), applies to defendant’s offenses and entitles him to a review of his sentence by a superior court judge after 25 years, he received a sentence of life imprisonment “with a meaningful opportunity to obtain release.” The Supreme Court disagreed, noting that the only effect of the review permitted by the statute is that a judge must recommend to the governor or a designated agency whether or not the defendant’s sentence should be altered or commuted and that the possibility of alteration or commutation of the sentence is “deeply uncertain” given the minimal guidance on the circumstances that might support such a result. The Court also concluded that “[G.S.] 15A-1380.5 does not address the central concern of Miller – that a sentencing court cannot treat minors like adults when imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” The permissible remedies for a Miller violation, parole consideration and resentencing, contemplate that a reviewing body will consider whether the juvenile offender has matured during the juvenile’s term of imprisonment. Nothing in G.S. 15A-1380.5 requires a reviewing judge to consider this factor. Because defendant’s sentence is unconstitutional under Miller, the trial court’s order vacating that sentence and ordering a new sentencing hearing is affirmed.

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