April 20, 2021
- Issue: Whether the trial court erred in determining that the 45-year-to-life sentence it imposed is not a de facto life sentence under the Eighth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.
Defendant appealed an order of the Superior Court ruling that Defendant’s sentence of 45 years to life does not constitute the de facto equivalent of lifetime imprisonment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In 1991, when defendant was 17, he committed first degree murder. He received a statutorily-mandated sentence of life without parole. At a later resentencing hearing, the Court imposed a sentence of 45 years to life and issued a narrative order defining a de facto life sentence as one that exceeds a defendant’s life expectancy. Further, the court held that, based on the evidence presented, the 45 years to life sentence imposed against defendant was not a de facto life sentence because it did not exceed defendant’s life expectancy.
Defendant appealed arguing that the trial court erred in holding lifetime imprisonment as being calculated based on a defendant’s actuarily-projected death. Rather, defendant argued that lifetime imprisonment is when imprisonment is for so long it forecloses out an opportunity for a person to have a meaningful life outside of prison.
Alternatively, he argued that if the Supreme Court found that lifetime imprisonment is tied to an actuarily-projected death, then life expectancy should be based on life expectancy of long-term prisoners, not the general public.
Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s holding. Particularly, the Supreme Court agreed that the trial court’s reliance on CDC life expectancy estimates rather than prisoner-based studies was proper because the trial court has broad discretion in choosing the types of evidence on which it may rely and because the trial court’s decision was not untenable or unreasonable.
Finally, defendant argued that the trial court erred in imposing a sentence of 45 years to life because it offers “the hope of release only a few years before his actuarily-projected death.” The Supreme Court disagreed and held that the trial court did not err as, based on the actuarily-projected death, from the date defendant would be eligible for parole he would have at least an additional 20 years to live.
Gordon J. MacDonald, attorney general (Elizabeth C. Woodcock, assistant attorney general, on the brief and orally), for the State. Christopher M. Johnson, chief appellate defender, of Concord, by brief and orally, for the defendant.