The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Friday became the seventh in the country to rule the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision banning automatic life prison sentences for juvenile killers applies retroactively to those whose first-degree murder convictions were final.
The 5-0 ruling applies to just four men serving mandatory life prison terms without possibility of parole for first-degree murder in New Hampshire.
All were 17 at the time the crimes occurred and include some of the state’s most notorious killers, such as Robert Tulloch, 31, who pleaded guilty to slaying married Dartmouth College professors Half and Susanne Zantop inside their Hanover home in 2001, and Robert Dingman, 36, who shot his parents, Eve and Vance Dingman, in their Rochester home in 1996.
In its 11-page decision, the state’s high court said the four are entitled to sentencing hearings at which they likely would be able to present mitigating factors in an attempt to get their prison terms reduced.
The other two men are: Michael Soto, 25, was convicted of accomplice to first-degree murder in the June 2007 shooting death of Aaron Kar in Manchester; and Eduardo Lopez Jr., 39, who was convicted of the 1991 shooting of Robert Goyette during a Nashua hold up.
New Hampshire Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth C. Woodcock said the state hasn’t decided if it will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court or federal circuit court.
In its Miller v. Alabama ruling in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life prison sentences without chance of parole for defendants 17 and younger, saying the sentencing scheme violates the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The court described juveniles as “constitutionally different from adults” in terms of sentencing.
Under New Hampshire law, first-degree murder convictions carry mandatory life prison terms without possibility of parole. The Miller decision now requires that juvenile killers have a hearing before sentencing.
But whether juveniles are entitled to retroactive relief under Miller remains an open question among courts across the country. The New Hampshire Supreme Court is the seventh state court to find juvenile offenders are entitled to retroactive relief, said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
The others are Massachusetts, Mississippi, Texas, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois.
High courts in four other states — Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Michigan and Minnesota — found Miller does not apply retroactively, she said.
“The states are all over the place on this,” said Manchester attorney Andrew Schulman, who represented Soto.
Added Levick: “One way or another, I think the (U.S.) Supreme Court is going to have the final word on this.”
Levick estimated 2,100 juvenile offenders are serving mandatory life without parole prison terms nationwide.
The state’s high court ruling said the four convicted juvenile killers are entitled to sentencing hearings at which they could present mitigating factors in an attempt to get their sentences reduced, state prosecutor Woodcock said.
Sentencing hearings would be held in the courts where the cases were tried, she said.
Woodcock said it’s possible the courts would impose the same sentence, even after a sentencing hearing. It’s also possible a defendant could get a lesser sentence.
“Much of that would hinge on the facts of the cases and....also the maturity of the defendants at the time of the defense,” Schulman said.