A Columbus County teenager sentenced to life without parole for a murder he committed at 16 will receive a new sentencing hearing, highlighting a shift in the way North Carolina courts are addressing punishments for juveniles convicted of murder.
In a sharply worded opinion published today by the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the court ruled that the teen's trial judge failed to consider his potential rehabilitation in prison. The court vacated the teen's sentence of life without parole, and ordered the trial judge to determine whether the teen could reshape himself as a law-abiding citizen before he dies in prison.
The ruling comes at a time when courts across the country are reevaluating the practice of locking up juvenile murderers for the rest of their lives. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors convicted of first-degree murder were unconstitutional, considering that their cognitive abilities are not fully developed at the time of their crimes. (That ruling did not outlaw life-without-parole sentences outright, but merely gave trial judges discretion to issue lighter sentences if they wished.) Since then various states, including North Carolina, have applied the court's logic retroactively for juveniles convicted prior to the 2012 ruling. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the case for mandatory retroactivity.
The Columbus County case stems from a 2012 incident that occurred one month after the Supreme Court's ruling. Sixteen-year-old Marquice Antone was charged with his uncle's murder during the commission of a robbery along with two co-defendants. Antone was a ninth grader who lived with his single mother. He didn't meet his father until he was 10. He had A's and B's on his report card, played three sports in high school, attended church, and planned to go to college. He had no criminal record, but smoked marijuana. The gun he used in the killing did not belong to him.
During his trial, Antone expressed remorse. After his conviction, Judge Gregory Bell based his sentence on perceived malice, premeditation and deliberation. In his one-page sentencing order, Bell ruled that there were insufficient mitigating factors to offer Antone the possibility of parole.
But Bell was required to consider each of the eight potential mitigating factors listed in North Carolina sentencing statutes. And in its ruling today, the Court of Appeals declared that Bell failed to address four of those factors, namely: Antone's immaturity; his ability to appreciate the risks and consequences of his conduct; the familial or peer pressure exerted upon him; and likelihood that he would benefit from rehabilitation in confinement. The court called the latter factor "significant."
In addition, the court noted that portions of Bell's order were mere recitations of testimony, rather than evidentiary or ultimate findings of fact. "If there is no evidence presented as to a particular mitigating factor, then the order should so state, and note that as a result, that factor was not considered," the court ruled.