In the cases of State v. Ricky Zuber and State v. James Comer, decided on January 11, 2017, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Rabner wrote for a unanimous Court.
In these appeals, the Court considered whether the United States Supreme Court’s determination in Miller v. Alabama, that youth and its attendant characteristics must be considered at the time a juvenile is sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, should apply to sentences that are the practical equivalent of life without parole to satisfy the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
For his role in two separate gang rapes in 1981, when he was seventeen years old, Ricky Zuber was sentenced on remand to 110 years in prison with 55 years of parole ineligibility. The Appellate Division affirmed the sentences. Under his revised aggregate sentence, Zuber will not be eligible for parole until about 2036, when he would be about 72 years old. In 2010, Zuber argued that his revised sentence was unconstitutional under Graham v. Florida. The trial court denied relief, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted Zuber s petition for certification.
When he was seventeen years old James Comer participated in four armed robberies. During the second robbery an accomplice shot and killed a victim. Comer was convicted of felony murder and robbery-related offenses. He will not be eligible for parole until 2068 when he is 85 years old. Comer argued his sentence amounted to life without parole, and was therefore illegal under Graham and Miller. When Comer was first sentenced in 2004, the trial judge was not required to evaluate the mitigating effects of youth. In a detailed written opinion, the same trial judge concluded in 2014 that, because he had not considered the Miller factors, Comer was entitled to be resentenced. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted Comer’s motion for direct certification of the trial court’s 2014 judgment.
The Court held that sentencing judges should evaluate the Miller factors when a juvenile facing a lengthy term of imprisonment that is the practical equivalent of life without parole is first sentenced, to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.
The State would argue that defendants less than a year away from being adults are not so different from the way they will be in a few months to deserve different considerations at sentencing. A strong counter argument is that while treating a seventeen year old differently than an eighteen year old seems arbitrary, so is setting the age of adulthood at eighteen.