Four teenage NH killers fight for another chance
CONCORD - Four teen killers serving life without parole claim a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling entitles them to new hearings where they hope to win reduced sentences.
Convicted first-degree murderers Robert Tulloch, 29, Robert Dingman, 35, Michael Soto, 23, and Eduardo Lopez Jr., 38, committed some of the most heinous, high-profile crimes in recent state history.
But they did it when they when they were 17. As such, they were "children" - a class of offenders "constitutionally different from adults" in terms of sentencing, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 25 in its companion rulings Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Dobbs.
Prosecutors maintain the Miller decision applies to just one case - that of Mont Vernon killer Steven Spader, 21, because his first-degree murder conviction is still pending direct appeal before the state Supreme Court.
"We believe that, as far as cases in New Hampshire, that decision (Miller) applies to the Steven Spader case only. But obviously that decision will be decided by the court," Senior Attorney General Jeffery A. Strelzin said.
A new sentencing hearing was scheduled for April 22 for Steven Spader, the convicted teen killer and accused ringleader of a 2009 Mont Vernon home invasion. Sentencing will follow April 26.
Tulloch, 29, was the notorious mastermind behind the random rob-and-kill scheme in which he and hometown buddy, James Parker, then 16, stabbed to death Dartmouth College professors Half and Susanne Zantop on Jan. 27, 2001.
"Mr. Tulloch was 17 years old at the time of the murders in this case. He does not deny that he committed the murders and he does not seek to set aside his guilty pleas. Nor does he deny that substantial punishment is warranted for his crimes," his public defender Richard C. Guerriero wrote in a habeas petition.
"However, he committed those acts when he was a child," Guerriero continued in his petition filed Dec. 20 in Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord.
Tulloch seeks a new sentencing hearing at which evidence related to his mental health and maturity at the time of the crime may be admitted in an attempt to get a lesser sentence. Tulloch intended to seek an insanity defense at trial, but withdrew that and pleaded guilty to the murders.
Supreme Court rulings
In Miller, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional all automatic life prison sentences without chance of parole for those who were under 18 years old at the time of their crimes. Such sentencing statutes violate the Eighth Amendment's protections against cruel and unusual punishment, the court wrote.
The court's ruling means these youthful offenders are entitled to sentencing hearings at which they can present evidence of mitigating factors - such as their immaturity, recklessness or mental health issues at the time of their crimes - in hope of convincing a judge to impose a lesser sentence.
The court could still impose life without possibility of parole - it just no longer can be mandatory as New Hampshire law currently requires for first-degree murder convictions.
In its companion ruling - Jackson v. Hobbs - the court said rights contained in Miller are retroactive for juvenile homicide offenders, even if their convictions were final.
Attorneys representing Tulloch, Dingman, Lopez and Soto - all of whose convictions are final - claim the Jackson ruling entitles their clients to retroactive relief.
The state Attorney General's Office objects to their claim in a motion filed Thursday in Merrimack County Superior Court.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors filed a motion to consolidate the four cases and have them heard by a single judge on the retroactive issue alone.
Currently, Tulloch and Dingman's habeas petitions are set to be heard April 12 at New Hampshire State Prison in Concord.
Tulloch's attorney Richard Guerriero stressed that, while Tulluch wants to have his life without parole sentence vacated, Tulloch does not seek to be released pending the outcome of the habeas petition.
Dingman, 35, who was convicted with his younger brother of the 1996 murders of their parents in their Rochester home, made similar arguments in his habeas petition filed with the court Jan. 29.
Lopez also filed a petition in Merrimack Superior Court, but was not available for public view Feb. 6 because it had not yet been officially docketed. Lopez was convicted of fatally shooting Robert Goyette during a 1991 Nashua bank robbery.
Manchester defense attorney Andrew Schulman filed a motion in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester seeking to have Soto's life sentence vacated and a resentencing hearing scheduled in light of the Miller decision.
Soto was convicted of accomplice to first-degree murder in the 2007 shooting death of Aaron Kar in Manchester.
In its Miller ruling, the court noted juveniles have a "diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform."
They also differ from adults in their lack of maturity and fully developed sense of responsibility that can lead to reckless and impulsive behavior, the court wrote. Juveniles also are more vulnerable to negative peer pressure and their characters have not completely formed.