TRENTON, N.J. — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week not to weigh in on a New Jersey court ruling that helped prompt a law prohibiting mandatory life without parole for juveniles means that the two men who sparked the case will be re-sentenced.
The Supreme Court declined to take up the case involving Ricky Zuber and James Comer, both of whom were convicted of serious crimes as juveniles and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for multiple offenses.
A look at what the court’s decision and the ongoing legal arguments over long sentences for juveniles means for New Jersey:
WHO ARE RICKY ZUBER AND JAMES COMER?
Zuber was sentenced for his role in two gang rapes, crimes he committed at the age of 17. He got a 110-year prison sentence and he wouldn’t be eligible for parole until 2036.
In the first rape, Zuber and others forced a woman at knife-point to drive to a cemetery in 1981, where they raped her before abandoning her naked. In the second case a month later, Zuber and others abducted and raped a 16-year-old high school student.
Comer was convicted when he was 17 of participating in four armed robberies in 2000, one of which led to the killing of a victim by an accomplice. He was sentenced to 75 years and he wouldn’t be eligible for parole until 2068.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THEM NOW?
Neither judge was required to evaluate the fact that the violence was committed when the men were juveniles, but that changed with a 2014 Supreme Court case.
Considering that ruling in a case in Alabama that found that mandatory sentences of life without possibility of parole was unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled in January that both men deserved to be re-sentenced. The state asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider that unanimous decision, but the high court declined this week.
Both men will now have a chance to be re-sentenced by New Jersey judges considering the “mitigating effects of youth.”
“He will have an opportunity to show that the person he was when he was 17 is a lot different than the man he is 17 years later,” Alexander Shalom said this week of Comer, who the ACLU represents.
Zuber is represented by a public defender, whose office’s policy is not to comment on cases.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR OTHER JUVENILE OFFENDERS IN NEW JERSEY?
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruling asked lawmakers to pass legislation prohibiting mandatory life without parole for juveniles in the state, and state lawmakers followed through on that last year.
The legislation means that juveniles convicted of murder in New Jersey now face a minimum of 30 years up to a life sentence, but even those who receive the maximum would be eligible for parole after serving 30 years.
The state Supreme Court case also directed judges to “exercise a heightened level of care” before imposing consecutive sentences on juveniles that could lead to a lengthy period without being able to get parole. Judges were also instructed to do an “individualized assessment” of juveniles before sentencing.
There could be further changes to New Jersey’s laws. A bill introduced in March would reduce the maximum period of parole ineligibility for juveniles who are sentenced as adults to 20 years. It also would allow them to petition for resentencing after 10 years. Lawmakers have yet to hold hearings on the bill.