Legal Analysis by Maren Hurley

Important takeaways: North Carolina’s constitution is more expansive than the federal constitution; juvenile offenders may not serve more than 40 years before parole eligibility; juvenile offenders sentenced to two or more Life-with-possibility-of-parole sentences must have their sentences run concurrently.

On June 17, 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in State v. Kelliher (2022-NCSC-77) that any sentence for a juvenile beyond 40 years of imprisonment constitutes a de facto life sentence and violates the 8th Amendment protections accorded to juveniles by Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) and Article 1, Section 27 of the North Carolina Constitution. 

Emancipate NC’s Executive Director Dawn Blagrove appeared before the Court when Kelliher was argued in a companion case, State v. Anderson, and urged the Court to abolish de facto life sentences for juveniles, which have overwhelmingly been imposed against Black youth in North Carolina. The Court ultimately remanded Anderson to the trial court for further proceedings, where our Senior Counsel, Ian Mance, represents Mr. Anderson, along with local counsel. While that case remains ongoing, the decision in Kelliher will have a significant impact for Anderson and other youths serving extremely long sentences in the state.

In Miller, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, citing children’s immaturity, low risk awareness, and inability to remove themselves from negative life circumstances as a distinguishing factor from adult defendants. The Court specifically noted that “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to the harshest possible penalty will be uncommon,” given the rarity of youth who are truly “incorrigible.” States responded to Miller by adding new laws to the books to re-sentence the dozens of juveniles who had received life without parole prior to the decision. These laws became known as the “Miller fix” statues. North Carolina’s statute revised juvenile sentences to require a minimum term of 25 years for first degree murder.

In Kelliher, James Kelliher was 17 when he was capitally indicted on two felony murder charges after participating in a robbery where his co-defendant shot two people. Fearing the death penalty, Kelliher plead guilty to two counts of murder and was ordered to serve two consecutive sentences of life without parole. Per North Carolina’s new Miller law, Kelliher was re-sentenced to serve two consecutive sentences of life with the possibility of parole, although the court found him “neither incorrigible or irredeemable” and “a low risk to society.” Because of the 25-year minimum imposed in the Miller fix statute, Kelliher would serve 50 years before becoming eligible for parole. He would be 67 years old at that point, if he survived after a lifetime in prison. 

In Friday’s ruling on Kelliher, the court concluded that a 50-year mandatory imprisonment term amounted to a de facto life sentence and was unconstitutional because it allowed no meaningful opportunity for a youth offender to show their rehabilitation and establish a life outside of prison. But the court also went a step further, ruling that any sentence requiring a juvenile offender to serve more than 40 years before parole eligibility is a de facto life sentence and therefore unconstitutional under Article 1, Section 27 of the North Carolina Constitution. 

In a surprising twist in the final sentence of the opinion, the court noted that imposition of consecutive first-degree murder sentences is no longer legal given the 40-year limit imposed in the opinion. Because of the Miller fix law’s firm 25 year minimum for first degree murder, any juvenile convicted of two or more murder charges whom the court finds is “neither incorrigible nor irredeemable” must have their sentences run concurrently to stay within the constitutional limit.

Emancipate NC will remain engaged on this important issue and continue to advocate for people sentenced to long sentences as juveniles. In the meantime, we are grateful to say goodbye to de facto life sentences for young people in North Carolina.