State v. Oglesby, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-354 (Jul. 20, 2021)

In 2004, the defendant was convicted of criminal offenses related to two convenience store robberies and a separate kidnapping and murder. All three incidents occurred in 2002, when the defendant was 16 years old. The defendant pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery, and was subsequently convicted at trial of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule, first degree kidnapping, and attempted robbery for the third incident. Sentencing for all the offenses occurred at a single hearing and the defendant was sentenced to a total of five consecutive active terms, including a term of life without parole for the murder. The defendant appealed his convictions, asserting errors related to the use of aggravating factors and double jeopardy. The appellate courts’ resolution of those claims in State v. Oglesby, 174 N.C. App. 658, (2005), aff’d in part, vacated in part, 361 N.C. 550 (2007) and State v. Oglesby, 186 N.C. App. 681 (2007) (unpublished), disc. review denied, 362 N.C. 478 (2008), ultimately resulted in a remand to the trial court to arrest judgment on the attempted robbery conviction, but otherwise left the sentences undisturbed. 

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), the defendant filed an MAR challenging his sentence of life without parole. The state initially requested a stay, arguing that it had not yet been decided whether Miller applied retroactively. Once that issue was resolved by Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016), the state agreed that the defendant was entitled to a resentencing hearing. The trial court granted the defendant’s MAR and ordered a new sentencing hearing for the purpose of resentencing the defendant on the murder and arresting judgment on either the kidnapping or attempted robbery conviction in accordance with the prior appellate decisions.

Since the defendant’s first-degree murder conviction was based on felony murder, there was no dispute that the defendant should be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole for that offense, pursuant to G.S. 15A-1340.19B(a). The contested issue at the hearing was whether that life sentence should also be ordered to run concurrently with the kidnapping sentence. After hearing arguments from the state and defense, the trial court ordered that the sentences remain consecutive. The defendant’s consecutive sentences for the two armed robbery convictions were not altered by the order.

The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by ordering consecutive sentences on the murder and kidnapping convictions, and also by failing to consider the two robbery convictions at the resentencing. The appellate court rejected both arguments. After reviewing the Miller decision and the responsive statutory changes, the court explained that the sentencing judge retains the discretion to order either consecutive or concurrent sentences pursuant G.S. 15A-1354, and the record in this case demonstrated that the judge “duly exercised that discretion by considering all facts presented at the resentencing hearing in reaching its decision.” Additionally, the appellate court held that the defendant failed to preserve the issue of whether the armed robbery sentences should have been included in the resentencing, based on defense counsel’s statements at the resentencing hearing conceding that they were not, as well as the defendant’s failure to include that issue in the notice of appeal. However, even if the issue had been preserved, the court held that the robbery sentences were properly excluded from the resentencing because they arose from a separate transaction. When a juvenile offender is awarded a resentencing under Miller, “the juvenile is only entitled to be resentenced on his murder conviction (i.e., the conviction for which he received mandatory LWOP), and is not entitled to be resentenced for unrelated convictions which arose out of a different transaction.”

The defendant next argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel, based on his attorney’s acknowledgement at the hearing that the two armed robbery convictions were unrelated and not before the court for resentencing. The appellate court held that the defendant’s claim failed under both prongs of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). First, defense counsel’s performance was not deficient because the argument that he purportedly should have raised (that the robbery convictions could also be included in the resentencing) “was, at best, resting on unsettled law, and at worst, meritless” as demonstrated by the appellate court’s rejection of the argument above. Second, the defendant likewise failed to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by this alleged failure. Given that the trial court declined to consolidate the two sentences that were before it, there was only a “highly remote possibility” that the court would have consolidated the other sentences, even if that option had been presented.

Finally, the defendant argued that his multiple consecutive sentences constituted a de facto sentence of life without parole in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Noting that there have been conflicting decisions on that issue at the Court of Appeals, and that the North Carolina Supreme Court recently issued a stay in State v. Kelliher, 854 S.E.2d 586 (N.C. 2021) pending discretionary review, the appellate court declined to rule on that argument at this time; instead, the court dismissed the claim without prejudice, allowing it to be raised on a subsequent MAR after Kelliher is decided, if warranted.

Judge Arrowood concurred with the majority in part, but dissented as to ineffective assistance of counsel and would have held that the trial court did have the authority to resentence on the robberies because the sentences were all imposed at the same time, and therefore trial counsel was deficient in failing to advance that argument at the hearing and there was a reasonable probability that the defendant suffered prejudice as a result.