Supreme Court Declines NJ Case on Lengthy Juvenile Sentences

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The Supreme Court building. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The U.S. Supreme Court is leaving in place a ruling by New Jersey’s highest court that helped prompt new legislation prohibiting mandatory life without parole for juveniles in the state.

The court declined Monday to take up the case involving Ricky Zuber and James Comer, both of whom were convicted of serious crimes as juveniles and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for multiple offenses.

The sentencing of Zuber and Comer prompted New Jersey’s highest court to rule earlier this year that judges need to take additional care in sentencing juveniles to long prison terms, and said Zuber and Comer should be re-sentenced.

Responding to the ruling, state lawmakers passed legislation barring life without parole for juvenile offenders. The legislation means that juveniles convicted of murder in New Jersey now face a minimum of 30 years up to a life sentence, but even those who receive the maximum would be eligible for parole after serving 30 years.

New Jersey wanted the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the issue of lengthy sentences that are the equivalent of life without parole.

Alexander Shalom, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s New Jersey chapter, said that Monday’s decision brings finality to the case and confirms that the men will get re-sentencing hearings.

Comer was convicted of participating in four armed robberies in 2000 when he was 17, one of which led to the killing of a victim by an accomplice. He was sentenced to 75 years with no parole eligibility for about 68 years.

“He will have an opportunity to show that the person he was when he was 17 is a lot different than the man he is 17 years later,” Shalom said of Comer, who the ACLU represents. Zuber is represented by a public defender.

In the state Supreme Court ruling, the New Jersey justices wrote that juveniles should be considered differently than adults at sentencing, particularly if the length of parole ineligibility amounts to a de facto life-without-parole sentence, as in the Zuber and Comer cases. Comer would be 85 before he would be eligible for parole, and Zuber would be in his early 70s.

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