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Life, no-parole for youth retroactive, justices rule

by Spencer Willems | June 19, 2015 at 2:36 a.m.

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that a convicted killer given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole is entitled to resentencing because the state's old law qualified as cruel and unusual punishment.


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Ulonzo Gordon, who was convicted of capital murder in June 1995 for the murder of a West Memphis man that January, will go back to Crittenden County Circuit Court for "appropriate" resentencing in a ruling that could affect pending appeals from dozens of Arkansas inmates with similar cases.

Gordon, 39, was 17 years old at the time of the slaying, and his attorney argued that recent rulings from the nation's highest court invalidated his life sentence without parole in the capital murder case.

In Thursday's opinion, Justice Robin Wynne sided with Lee County Circuit Judge Richard Proctor, who found that a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision restricting penalties for young killers should be applied retroactively to cover a defendant who has been incarcerated more than half his life.

State attorneys had argued that the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, an Arkansas case, did not apply retroactively.

Those decisions prohibit a state from requiring judges or juries to give life sentences without the possibility of parole to defendants who were children at the time the crimes were committed.

That doesn't prevent juries from handing down life sentences without parole if the jurors decide the punishment is warranted.

Wynne's opinion Thursday noted that the prior decision by the state Supreme Court to give the defendant in Jackson a new sentence necessitated that Gordon have the same opportunity.

"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," Wynne wrote. "It would be patently unfair to decline to do so for other prisoners who are similarly situated."

Gordon's attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, said the court made the right decision in applying the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings to inmates locked up on laws that were found to be unconstitutional.

He said that the retroactivity should be applied to similar cases in the state, which by his count number about 56.

"They decided the issue in Gordon's case, but under ... precedent, it will apply to other people situated in similar situations, [convicted of] committing capital murder while under 18 at the time of offense," Rosenzweig said. "You can't treat the other people differently as a matter of state law."

A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued a statement in response to the ruling:

"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," Judd Deere wrote. "The Attorney General's Office continues to review this decision from the State Supreme Court."

So far, 10 states' courts have decided that the Miller and Jackson cases should apply retroactively. Five others, including Louisiana, have ruled the opposite.

The U.S. Supreme Court took on the Louisiana challenge to retroactivity in March but has yet to rule.

Gordon and two adults were arrested in January 1995 after the shooting of Otis Webster, 21, who had been feuding with Gordon and the two other men for some time.

But his case would ultimately be affected by a clerk's killing four years later in Arkansas as well as a fatal 2003 beating in Alabama.

In 2012, the nation's highest court merged the criminal appeal of Evan Miller,who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole in Alabama for a killing he committed as a 14-year-old, with another case involving an Arkansan, Kuntrell Jackson.

In November 1999, Jackson was 14 years old when he and two older teens went into a video store to rob it and a clerk was killed during the crime. He was convicted and sentenced in 2003 but has since sought post-conviction relief.

Arkansas law required Gordon to serve the rest of his life in prison. But the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which struck down mandatory life sentences for Jackson and Miller, gave Gordon another shot at freedom.

The nation's highest court ruled that mandatory laws like those in Arkansas did not account for a juvenile's not fully developed mind or ability to reform, and found those laws constituted "cruel and unusual punishments" which are prohibited by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that Jackson's case should be reopened in Jefferson County Circuit Court for resentencing.

In Thursday's opinion, Wynne sympathized with arguments made by state attorneys and conceded that Gordon received a fair trial and that the costs "both in resources and human suffering, particularly that of the victim's family" should be considered.

But ultimately, Gordon's sentence was unfair.

"As a matter of fundamental fairness and evenhanded justice, we affirm [Proctor's ruling].... Gordon is entitled to the same relief from his unconstitutional sentences as [Jackson]," Wynne wrote. "[The state's arguments] are compelling interests, but we hold that the Eight Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment outweighs the factors favoring finality."

Rosenzweig said that most of the 56 appeals relying on the unconstitutionality of their sentences since the Miller and Jackson cases are on hold pending this decision, but that work on those cases, typically through public defenders, will proceed soon.

Greg Parrish, the head of the state's Public Defender Commission, said it will be taxing to prepare so many cases for resentencing, noting that the group's budget didn't factor in the costs of the extra litigation.

"Today's ruling says to me that it's a fundamental fairness question that the court has already addressed in the Jackson matter," Parrish said. "[The ruling] seems to me to be a road map that says how they're going to look at these cases."

Metro on 06/19/2015

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