RALEIGH -- A U.S. Supreme Court ruling will change murder sentencing laws for minors in the North Carolina and could result in lighter sentences for some juveniles. Legislators will likely have to decide how the new provision striking down mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole will impact state sentencing laws.
Laurence Lovette is one of two men serving life in prison without parole for kidnapping, robbing and killing Eve Carson, a promising UNC Chapel Hill student body president. Lovette's defense attorney Karen Bethea-Shields said her client was 17 when Carson was murdered in 2008. When Lovette was convicted in December 2011, state law made life without parole the mandatory sentence for young people who commit some form of murder.
"The statute says mandatory life without parole, it gave him no discretion," said Bethea-Shields, an attorney for over 30 years. She believes the recent ruling will urge judges to take a closer look at the offender, not just the offense.
"Juveniles are different. They develop differently so they should be punished differently. Therefore this decision is a good decision in the right area," she said.
According the the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, Lovette is one of more than 90 prisoners currently serving life without parole sentences who were under 18 at the time of the crime.
At this point, the Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission said it's unclear how the state's court system will handle the change, particularly for convict's like Lovette who have filed appeals.
"There will have to be some decisions made, probably through the courts, about whether those offenders will be entitled to sort of retroactive relief based on the supreme court's decision," said David Lagos, the commission's senior research and policy associate.
Lagos expects a judge or jury will eventually have a clear procedure to follow.
"It may be getting to where there's an actual rule to apply and we don't know how long that's going to take," he said.
While policy makers consider how to apply the rule, defense attorneys like Bethea-Shields may do homework of their own.
"To see how I can effectively defend other clients that I have that fall within this age range," said Bethea-Shields.
There's no clear timeline for defining the new sentencing provision. Since the short session is wrapping up this week, lawmakers will likely take it up next session. The sentencing commission expects to review this issue at its next meeting in September.