State v. Young, — S.E.2d —, 2016 WL 7422373 (N.C. Dec. 21, 2016) – Defendant, age 17 at the time of the crime, was convicted after a jury trial of first degree murder under the felony murder doctrine and given a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. After Miller, defendant filed a motion for relief with the Superior Court; the Superior Court determined that Miller applied retroactively to defendant’s mandatory LWOP sentence and required vacatur of the original sentence and resentencing. The State appealed, challenging both the determination that Miller applied retroactively and that defendant’s life-without-parole sentence fell within the decision’s ambit. While the appeal was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in Montgomery that Miller has retroactive effect. Nevertheless, the State contended before the N.C. Supreme Court that defendant was not entitled to resentencing under Miller and Montgomery because his sentence was not a true life-without-parole sentence but rather a sentence of life imprisonment with a meaningful opportunity to obtain release. In particular, it argued that N.C.G.S. § 15A-1380.5, which was effective for a brief period in the mid-90s during which defendant committed his offenses, provided a meaningful opportunity for release. Section 15A-1380.5 provides, in relevant part, that a defendant sentenced to life without parole “is entitled to review” by a resident superior court judge after serving 25 years; the judge may, in his or her discretion, recommend that the governor or an executive agency consider altering or commuting the sentence.
The North Carolina Supreme Court rejected the state’s argument that § 15A-1380.5 provided a meaningful opportunity for release under Graham, Miller, and Montgomery. It explained that, under the statute, “the possibility of alteration or commutation . . . is deeply uncertain and rooted in essentially unguided discretion.” Sentence review “guarantees no hearing, no notice, and no procedural rights,” and requires only that the judge “consider the trial record” while according discretion to review other information. Accordingly, the statute does not “reduce to any meaningful degree the severity of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” Nor does the statute address the “central concern” of Miller, that is, that a sentencing court cannot treat minors like adults when imposing an LWOP sentence. Nothing in the statute requires consideration of maturation or other youth-related factors. Thus, “[a]lthough section 15A-1380.5 might increase the chance that this sentence will be altered or commuted, it does not provide a sufficiently meaningful opportunity to reduce the severity of the sentence to constitute something less than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”
Accordingly, defendant’s LWOP sentence violated Miller and the Eighth Amendment. Vacatur of sentence affirmed; case remanded for resentencing.