The Appellate Division concluded with the following in relevant part: The fundamental fairness doctrine is an integral part of the due process guarantee of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution, which protects against arbitrary and unjust governmental action.” State v. Njango (2021); accord Jamgochian v. N.J. State Parole Bd. (2008). “The doctrine serves as ‘an augmentation of existing constitutional protections or as an independent source of protection against state action.'” State v. Melvin (2021) (quoting Doe v. Poritz (1995)). It advances “fairness and fulfillment of reasonable expectations” relating to “constitutional and common law goals.” State v. Vega-Larregui (2021).
We rely, in part, on the fundamental fairness doctrine to resolve the “especially compelling” issue before us. See State v. Saavedra (2015) (noting that “the doctrine is applied ‘sparingly’ and only where the ‘interests involved are especially compelling.’ As we have explained, defendant’s confinement seems to have no end, and that is due, to a large extent, to the confluence of the following: precedent that allows the consideration for parole to remedy a Miller violation; precedent that removes his sentence from the realm of de facto life terms; and the deferential standard of review applied to parole denials. To this point in time, these legal concepts have hindered defendant’s ability to obtain the review to which he is constitutionally entitled. Fundamental fairness requires relief.
Although defendant was not sentenced to a lengthy period of parole ineligibility, his sentence has, as a practical matter, evolved into just that, despite the significant rehabilitated steps he has taken, his blemish-free record while incarcerated, and the positive psychological evaluations he has received. Considering the record in this matter, nothing less than an adversarial hearing in the Criminal Part will afford defendant the “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” envisioned by Graham, 560 U.S. at 75. We therefore reverse the order denying defendant’s motion to correct an illegal sentence without conducting an adversarial hearing.
Because defendant has already petitioned for the very adversarial hearing that we hold he is entitled to, and appeals from the denial of that application, he need not file a new petition. We remand for the trial court to conduct an adversarial evidentiary hearing consistent with this opinion. At the hearing, defendant shall have the right to be represented by legal counsel, present witnesses and expert testimony, cross-examine the State’s witnesses, and introduce his nonconfidential parole records and other relevant, admissible exhibits. We leave the admissibility of such records and exhibits and any request for discovery to the sound discretion of the trial court.
On remand, the court shall consider the Miller factors and determine whether defendant has demonstrated that he now appreciates risks and consequences and has achieved maturity and rehabilitation while imprisoned that warrants relief under the State Constitution. The parties shall keep the trial court abreast of the status of defendant’s pending appeal of his parole denial.
Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.
This opinion appears to set the stage for protracted hearings and additional appeals. If the defendant’s health is failing at 59 years old as stated by his appellate attorney, he may not live to see the final decision.