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After court ruling, killer explores his options

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 20. 2012 10:01PM
Robert Tulloch (Union Leader file photo)

The former Vermont man convicted of killing Dartmouth College professors Half and Susanne Zantop is exploring whether he is entitled to a new sentencing hearing under a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found unconstitutional mandatory life prison sentences for juvenile murderers.

Robert Tulloch, 29, is serving two consecutive life sentences for stabbing the Zantops to death inside their Hanover home on Jan. 27, 2001. The New Hampshire Public Defender's office said Tulloch contacted them after the Supreme Court released its Miller v. Alabama decision June 25. The ruling held that the Eighth Amendment forbids mandatory life without possibility of parole sentencing for murderers who were less than 18 when they committed their crimes.

'Mr. Tulloch contacted us and requested that we advise him regarding his rights to seek relief under the recent decision,' public defender Richard C. Guerriero wrote in a letter filed with Grafton County Superior Court Monday.

Guerriero, who represented Tulloch during his criminal proceedings, said he reviewed the Miller decision and Tulloch's file. He said he also met with Tulloch.

'I believe that Mr. Tulloch may be entitled to some relief under the Miller decision since he was under the age of eighteen at the time of the murders and since he was sentenced to life without parole,' Guerriero wrote the court. He asked that the court appoint him to represent Tulloch.

In a telephone interview Monday, Guerriero would not comment on what type of relief he seeks for Tulloch.

'The request that we be appointed as counsel is in part to determine whether there is a valid claim and, if there is one, what form it should take and what the relief would be and where we should file it,' Guerriero said.

Tulloch, then 17, and his 16-year-old accomplice, James Parker - both of Chelsea, Vt. - randomly targeted the Zantops for their rob-and-kill scheme.

Parker turned state's witness and pleaded guilty to accomplice to second-degree murder on Dec. 7, 2001, and was sentenced to 25 years to life. Tulloch pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and one count of murder-conspiracy on April 4, 2002. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole. He currently is incarcerated at New Hampshire State Prison in Berlin.

In Miller v. Alabama, the court found sentencing schemes that require life in prison without parole for juvenile killers violate the Eighth Amendment's ban against 'cruel and unusual punishment' and bar judges from considering a juvenile's 'lessened culpability' and 'greater capacity for change.'

Miller v. Alabama does not preclude judges from sentencing juvenile killers to life in prison without possibility of parole. It just bars automatic life without parole.

It is not known whether the ruling would apply retroactively to cases like Tulloch's, or only to pending and future cases.

State homicide prosecutor Jeffery A. Strelzin said the case of Steven Spader appears most likely to qualify under the Miller decision since Spader's conviction and sentence still are pending appeal to the state Supreme Court. Spader, 20, was convicted of murdering a Mont Vernon mother and maiming her daughter in a 2009 random home invasion.

Spader's defense attorney, Jonathan Cohen of Cohen & Winters in Concord, has said the ruling appears to apply to their client since he was 17 when the crime occurred, and his firm 'could potentially file a motion with the court if we feel it applies to our case.'

To date, no motion has been filed.

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