Freeze, give me all your money!" Inside a convenience store in Lexington, N.C., in 1997, 16-year-old Sethy Seam watched his friend Freddie Van pull out a .22-caliber pistol and point it at the manager. Van demanded cash. A fight ensued, and Van shot the manager, killing him. Seam and Van tried to open the register, to no avail. They fled.
After their arrests, Van took a plea deal for a sentence of 27 to 35 years. Seam went to trial, where he was convicted of first-degree murder. Sentenced to life without parole, he is now 33 and housed in Nash Correctional Institution.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Miller v. Alabama, declaring that juveniles convicted of murder may no longer receive automatic life sentences. Instead, they must receive individualized sentencing hearings, so that a judge might consider mitigating factors.
In other words, the ruling did not abolish life without parole; it abolished mandatory life without parole.
But the court's ruling applies only to cases ending after Miller. That means Seam and other juveniles convicted of murder before 2012 are still doing life without parole.
Next Tuesday in Raleigh, the N.C. Supreme Court will hear three cases, including Seam's, to determine whether trial judges must retroactively reconsider the sentences of juvenile murderers.
If the judges rule in Seam's favor, it could affect the cases of approximately 80 incarcerated juvenile offenders convicted of murder in North Carolina, according to Mary Pollard, executive director of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, which represents several of them.
Across the country, a wave of tolerance toward youth is sweeping the criminal justice system, as violent crime perpetrated by young people is plummeting. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that no juvenile may be executed for a crime. In 2010, the court ruled that juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses may no longer receive life imprisonment sentences.
Last year, after Seam filed a motion for appropriate relief, a Davidson County superior judge ruled that Seam received an unconstitutional sentence and was entitled to a new sentencing hearing, suggesting that Miller was retroactive.
Prosecutors appealed, laying the groundwork for next week's Supreme Court hearing.
In Miller, the Supreme Court justices reasoned that the minds of juveniles are still immature and not fully capable of controlling impulsive thoughts.
Automatically sentencing a juvenile to life without parole, no matter how heinous the crime, violates the Eighth Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment. That amendment also demands that legal punishments be proportionate to the crimes.
Juveniles, said the justices, have a greater capacity to change.
The recent Supreme Court rulings have eased the consciences of many judges who once felt compelled to levy extreme sentences on young people. For example, in the federal case of Jeremiah Sloan, a 17-year-old Charlotte drug dealer sentenced to a life prison term in 1994—a case currently pending at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals—the district court judge noted: "[U]nder the system that we have got, I am required by law to impose a sentence as set forth in this book...The fact of his age, the fact of his having a child, are not legally sufficient grounds. In short, there is nothing I can do."
Following Miller, legislators in dozens of states changed their laws. In North Carolina, lawmakers gave judges sentencing discretion for all juveniles convicted of murder. In addition, they wiped away life without parole sentences for juveniles committing felony murder, like Seam.
There is a general split across the country on whether courts interpret Miller to apply retroactively (See map). A few federal courts have ruled on either side, and the U.S. Department of Justice came out in favor of retroactivity.
"Criminologists have shown us that young people have the tendency to age out of criminal behavior," said Jody Kent Lavy, director of The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national coalition in Washington, D.C. She is also a graduate of East Chapel Hill High School.
"It's shameful that in this country, and in my home state, children can be sentenced to die in prison. Charles Manson came up for parole 12 times, but some children never will."
The case for applying the ruling to old cases hinges on one major point, widely debated in legal circles: whether Miller is "procedural," or "substantive." Procedural law defines administrative rules; substantive law defines defendants' rights.
The North Carolina Attorney General's Office argues that Miller is a procedural rule, because it does not altogether ban life imprisonment for juveniles; rather, it merely offers a judge the opportunity to levy a lesser sentencing. (In a recent high-profile case out of Orange County, Laurence Lovette, the killer of UNC student Eve Carson, was given a new sentencing hearing in light of Miller, and he was promptly resentenced to life in prison.)
Seam's lawyers argue that Miller is a substantive law because, in addition to invalidating dozens of statutes across the country, it affects the rights for an entire class of offenders.
Abolishing mandatory life sentences for juveniles, they argue, is a very big deal. In North Carolina, at least eight superior court judges, including Durham County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, have either ruled that Miller is retroactive, or granted motions for relief in light of Miller.
"This is vitally important to the people affected in North Carolina," said Sarah Jessica Farber, a private Raleigh attorney who formerly handled Miller cases for N.C. Prisoner Legal Services. "Children are fundamentally different. They don't have the same capacity to understand the consequences of their actions. That makes them less culpable."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Young guns"