State v. Young, 369 N.C. 118 (Dec. 21, 2016)

The State conceded and the court agreed that pursuant to Montgomery, Miller applies retroactively. The court further rejected the State’s argument that the defendant’s sentence was not in violation of Miller because it allowed for a meaningful opportunity for the defendant to obtain release. The State argued that the defendant had an opportunity for release under G.S. 15A-1380.5, a repealed statue which applied to the defendant’s case. Recognizing that the statute might increase the chance for a sentence to be altered or commuted, the court rejected the argument that the defendant’s sentence did not violate Miller. It noted that under the statute although a defendant is entitled to review of the sentence by the trial court, the statute guarantees no hearing, no notice, and no procedural rights. Furthermore, it provides minimal guidance as to what type of circumstances would support alteration or commutation, it requires only that the judge “consider the trial record,” and notes that the judge “may” review other information “in his or her discretion.” Ultimately the decision of what to recommend is in the judge’s discretion and the only effect of the judge’s recommendation is that the Governor or a designated executive agency must “consider” that recommendation. The court stated:

Because of these provisions, the possibility of alteration or commutation pursuant to section 15A-1380.5 is deeply uncertain and is rooted in essentially unguided discretion. Accordingly, this section does not reduce to any meaningful degree the severity of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Moreover, section 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. (citations omitted).

The court noted that the Supreme Court’s “foundational concern” in Miller was “that at some point during the minor offender’s term of imprisonment, a reviewing body will consider the possibility that he or she has matured.” It concluded:

Nothing in section 15A-1380.5 requires consideration of this factor. In fact, after the judge’s recommendation is submitted to “[t]he Governor or an executive agency designated under this section,” N.C.G.S. § 15A-1380.5(e), nothing in section 15A-1380.5 gives any guidance to the final decision maker because this framework simply was not developed to address the concerns the Supreme Court raised in Miller and Montgomery.