State v. Williams, ___ N.C. App. ___, 820 S.E.2d 521 (Sept. 18, 2018)

review granted, ___ N.C. ___, 828 S.E.2d 23 (Jun. 11, 2019)

In a case where the trial court found that the juvenile’s likelihood of rehabilitation was uncertain and sentenced him to life in prison without parole, the court vacated and remanded for the defendant to be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole. The defendant was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder. He was 17 years old at the time of the crimes. The trial court sentenced the defendant to two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Following the United States Supreme Court’s Miller decision, the defendant sought and obtained a new sentencing hearing. After considering the evidence and arguments by counsel at the new hearing, the trial court entered an order that concluded, in part: “There is no certain prognosis of Defendant[’]s possibility of rehabilitation. The speculation of Defendant’s ability to be rehabilitated can only be given minimal weight as a mitigating factor.” The trial court sentenced the defendant to two consecutive sentences of life without parole and the defendant appealed.

            Citing state Supreme Court precedent, the court quickly rejected the defendant’s argument that G.S. 15A-1340.19B (the post-Miller sentencing scheme for juveniles) is unconstitutional on its face.

However, the court agreed with the defendant that the trial court’s finding that the defendant’s potential for rehabilitation was speculative rendered him ineligible for life without parole. The court noted that the case required it to address a question of first impression: whether the Supreme Court’s holdings require trial courts to determine, as a threshold matter, whether a juvenile defendant is eligible for such punishment independent of other relevant factors, or whether it merely identifies additional factors that the trial court must consider as it weighs the totality of circumstances in making its sentencing decision. Considering the case law, the court stated:

[W]e hold that whether a defendant qualifies as an individual within the class of offenders who are irreparably corrupt is a threshold determination that is necessary before a life sentence without parole may be imposed by the trial court. This holding is not inconsistent with the North Carolina Supreme Court’s rejection of a specific factfinding requirement. Rather, we hold that, when a trial court does make a finding about a juvenile offender’s possibility of rehabilitation that is inconsistent with the limited class of offenders defined by the United States Supreme Court, a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional as applied to that offender.

Turning to the case at hand, the court concluded that “the trial court erred by imposing a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole after making a finding contrary to the defined class of irreparably corrupt offenders described in our precedent.” The trial court made an explicit finding that “there is no certain prognosis” for the defendant’s potential for rehabilitation. This finding directly conflicts with the limitation of life in prison without parole to juveniles who are “irreparably corrupt” and “permanently incorrigible.” It concluded: “Because the trial court made an explicit finding contrary to a determination that Defendant is one of those rarest of juvenile offenders for whom rehabilitation is impossible and a worthless endeavor, we hold the trial court erred by imposing a life sentence without the possibility of parole.”

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