56 youthful offenders may get hearings after court ruling

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas' highest court ruled Thursday that an inmate serving life without parole for a killing he was convicted of as a juvenile deserves a new sentencing hearing, a move that opens the door for new sentences for 55 other former youthful offenders.

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld a Lee County judge's order granting a new sentencing hearing for Ulonzo Gordon, who was convicted of capital murder in the 1994 slaying of a West Memphis man. In the unanimous ruling, justices ruled that a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting mandatory life without parole sentences for youthful offenders should apply retroactively.

An attorney for Gordon said the ruling means all 56 inmates in Arkansas serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles are entitled to new sentencing hearings.

"It should affect all the others. All the others were being held up pending the decision on retroactivity," said Jeff Rosenzweig, who is representing most of the 56 former juvenile offenders.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office said it was reviewing the court's decision.

"Only those inmates who were juveniles when they were sentenced to serve a 'mandatory' life sentence are affected by today's decision in Kelley v. Ulonzo Gordon," Rutledge spokesman Judd Deere said in an email. "The attorney general's office continues to review this decision from the State Supreme Court."

Justices said Gordon was entitled to the same relief as Kuntrell Jackson, an Arkansas inmate who was given a new sentence as a result of the 2012 U.S. high court ruling.

"Nonetheless, as it now stands, a juvenile offender sentenced to an unconstitutional mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole by the state of Arkansas has obtained a new sentencing hearing," Justice Robin Wynne wrote in the ruling. "It would be patently unfair to decline to do so for other prisoners who are similarly situated."

The court's ruling comes a little over a month after it ruled a judge improperly ordered new sentencing hearings for two other inmates serving life without parole for crimes they committed as youths. The court last month said hearings for Aaron Hodge and James Grubbs must be held first to determine that they were younger than 18 when they committed the crimes.

Justices acknowledged the state's arguments that Gordon received a fair trial when he was convicted and that the suffering by the victim's family shouldn't be forgotten.

"These are compelling interests, but we hold that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment outweighs the factors favoring finality," Wynne wrote.

Read Friday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.

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