State v. Ames, ___ N.C. App. ___, 836 S.E.2d 296 (Nov. 5, 2019)

The defendant, 17 years old at the time of his crime, was charged with first-degree murder based on his role in a murder committed by one of his acquaintances during a robbery. Trial testimony indicated that the defendant orchestrated the killing. He was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder. At sentencing, the trial judge reviewed mitigating circumstances as required by G.S. 15A-1340.19B(c) to decide whether to impose a sentence of life without parole or life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Among other findings, the trial court found no evidence of particular immaturity, no evidence of mental illness, and “no evidence . . . that the defendant would benefit from rehabilitation and confinement other than that of other . . . persons who may be incarcerated for . . . first degree murder.” The trial court concluded that any mitigating factors were “outweighed by other evidence in this case of the offense and the manner in which it was committed” and sentenced the defendant to life without parole. The court of appeals vacated the sentence, concluding that the trial court applied an incorrect legal standard by focusing on the nature of the offense and not whether the defendant was, within the meaning of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), “the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.” The trial court also erred by comparing the young defendant to the broader class of all persons who may be incarcerated for first-degree murder, including adults. The court of appeals remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing consistent with its opinion, emphasizing that the mitigation evidence put on by the defendant (including his youth, his violent home environment, his potential for rehabilitation) “seemingly implicated every factor Miller identified as counseling against sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole.” Slip op. at 24 (emphasis in original). A dissenting judge would have affirmed the sentence of life without parole.