State v. Conner, 2022-NCSC-79, ___ N.C. ___ (Jun. 17, 2022)

In this Columbus County case, the juvenile defendant pled guilty to the first-degree murder and first-degree rape of his aunt, offenses he committed and was arrested for when he was 15 years old.­­ The trial court conducted a sentencing hearing under the statutory procedures enacted to conform to the United States Supreme Court’s determination in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), that the Eighth Amendment bars the automatic, mandatory imposition of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile defendant. Based on its finding of numerous mitigating factors, the trial court imposed a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 25 years for first-degree murder. The trial court further sentenced the defendant to 240-348 months of imprisonment for the first degree rape, and ordered that the two sentences run consecutively. As a result, the defendant was to become eligible for parole after being incarcerated for 45 years, at which point he would be 60 years old.

The defendant appealed, raising, in addition to other arguments, the claim that the consecutive sentences were the functional equivalent of a sentence of life without parole and thus were unconstitutional when imposed on a juvenile who was not determined to be incorrigible or irredeemable. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals rejected this argument. The defendant appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

On this issue of first impression, the Supreme Court reasoned that at some point multiple terms of active consecutive sentences imposed upon a juvenile offender, even if they expressly provide for parole, become tantamount to a life sentence without parole. This occurs when the offender has been incarcerated for such a protracted period of time that the possibility of parole is no longer “plausible, practical, or available.” Slip op. at 47. A juvenile offender entitled to parole based on the trial court’s determination that he is neither incorrigible nor irredeemable must be afforded an opportunity for parole that is “realistic, meaningful, and achievable.” Id. A sentence that fails to afford that opportunity violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments as well as the more protective provisions in Article I, Section 27 of the North Carolina Constitution barring cruel or unusual punishments.

In determining the maximum amount of time that a redeemable juvenile offender may serve before becoming parole eligible, the Court found it necessary to balance guidance from the United States Supreme Court that parole eligibility should be sufficiently far in the future to provide a juvenile offender time to mature and rehabilitate but sufficiently early to allow the offer to experience worthwhile undertakings outside of prison in the event parole is granted. The Court said it also had to give due weight to the trial court’s discretion to determine whether multiple sentences will run concurrently or consecutively pursuant to G.S. 15A-1354. Drawing from the United States Sentencing Commission’s guidance regarding determination of a de facto life sentence, the Court established forty years of incarceration as the point in time at which a juvenile offender who has not been deemed incorrigible or irredeemable by a trial court, and who is serving a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, is eligible to seek parole. The Court thus reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals on this issue and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for further remand to the trial court.

Justice Berger, joined by Chief Justice Newby and Justice Barringer, dissented, reasoning that the defendant’s sentence did not violate the Eighth Amendment or corollary provisions of the North Carolina Constitution because the State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime. The dissent criticized the majority for transforming the opportunity to obtain release required by the Constitution to an opportunity to seek parole early enough to experience meaningful life outside of prison based on policy preferences.