State v. Cates, S-1-SC-38989

Case DateOctober 24, 2022
CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellant,

NORMAN TYRELL CATES,Defendant-Appellee.

No. S-1-SC-38989

Supreme Court of New Mexico

October 24, 2022


Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Maris Veidemanis, Assistant Attorney General Santa Fe, NM for Appellant

Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Thomas J. Lewis, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Appellee



ZAMORA, Justice.


{¶1}This matter comes to us on appeal of the district court's grant of Defendant Norman Tyrell Cates' petition for writ of habeas corpus. We consider whether the district court erred by concluding that Defendant, a serious youthful offender serving less than life imprisonment, is eligible to earn meritorious deductions under the Earned Meritorious Deductions Act (EMDA), NMSA 1978, § 33-2-34 (2015).[1] In State v. Tafoya, 2010-NMSC-019, ¶ 21, 148 N.M. 391, 237 P.3d 693, we held that the authority of a district court to sentence a serious youthful offender to less than life imprisonment "implies the discretion to award [a] serious youthful offender[] good-time credit eligibility within the existing framework of the EMDA, that is, zero, four, or thirty days good-time credit eligibility per month." In this opinion, we clarify that a serious youthful offender serving less than a term of life imprisonment only becomes eligible to earn meritorious deductions if expressly made eligible to do so by the sentencing court. We conclude that Defendant's original judgment and


sentence is silent as to his good-time eligibility, and he is not eligible to earn meritorious deductions. Accordingly, the district court that heard the habeas petition (the habeas court) erred by granting Defendant's petition and ordering that his judgment and sentence be amended to provide for this eligibility.

{¶2} We reverse the district court's order and remand with instructions to vacate Defendant's amended judgment and sentence and to reinstate the original judgment and sentence.


{¶3}In 2006, Defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, NMSA 1978, § 30-2-1(A) (1994), in the stabbing and beating death of his elderly neighbor, Lena Barrett. According to evidence adduced at trial, Defendant violently attacked the victim in her home while she was sleeping, stabbed her twenty-eight times, bludgeoned her, and choked her repeatedly. Defendant was seventeen years old at the time of the offense. The district court sentenced him as a serious youthful offender. See NMSA 1978, § 31-18-15.2(A) (1996) (defining a "'serious youthful offender'" as "an individual fifteen to eighteen years of age who is charged with and indicted or bound over for trial for first degree murder"). The parties agree that the district court sentenced Defendant to less than life imprisonment, as allowed by statute, NMSA 1978, § 31-18-15.3(D) (1993). Defendant was given a term of thirty


years of incarceration followed by five years of parole. The parties dispute whether Defendant's sentence made him eligible to earn meritorious deductions.

{¶4} During Defendant's sentencing hearing, the district court accepted proffers and heard statements regarding Defendant and his offense. Defense counsel requested a sentence of eighteen to twenty years, "with a recommendation of treatment accompanying the judgment and sentence," but did not request that Defendant be made eligible for meritorious deductions. The State requested a sentence of life. After commenting on the evident brutality and senseless nature of the murder, the district court announced an intent to sentence Defendant to "the maximum penalty of life in prison." Notwithstanding this verbally expressed intent, the district court entered a written judgment and sentence providing that Defendant would be incarcerated for a fixed-term sentence of thirty years. During the sentencing hearing, the court also expressed an intent to "permit participation in therapeutic amenities during the term of incarceration." However, the court did not reference the EMDA, and Defendant's judgment and sentence is silent as to his eligibility to earn meritorious deductions.

{¶5}The parties do not explain the discrepancy between the sentencing court's oral pronouncement to give a life sentence and its written judgment and sentence giving a thirty-year term sentence. The record fails to reflect, for example, whether the court


decided to reduce Defendant's sentence before issuing the written judgment and sentence, whether any error was made in preparing the document, or whether there is some other explanation for the discrepancy.

{¶6}Fourteen years after his sentencing hearing, Defendant filed a habeas petition in the district court seeking to clarify his eligibility to earn meritorious deductions. During his term of incarceration, Defendant has engaged in therapeutic and educational programming, including passing his high school equivalency exam and speaking at community outreach events for at-risk youth. Although the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) kept track of Defendant's participation in these programs, Defendant learned that NMCD was not awarding him good time against his sentence for these activities.

{¶7}In his amended habeas petition, Defendant contended that NMCD had wrongly concluded that he was ineligible to earn meritorious deductions because he was not serving a life sentence. See § 33-2-34(G) ("The provisions of [the EMDA] shall not be interpreted as providing eligibility to earn meritorious deductions from a sentence of life imprisonment or a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of release or parole."). Defendant further argued that, since his judgment and sentence was silent as to his eligibility to earn meritorious deductions, the sentencing court had not expressly limited his good-time eligibility. Because first-


degree murder is not listed as a serious violent offense in the EMDA, Defendant reasoned that his crime must be designated a nonviolent offense under Section 33-2-34(L)(3), making him eligible for up to thirty days of deductions per month of time served under Section 33-2-34(A)(2).

{¶8}Although the State stipulated that Defendant was not serving a life sentence, it nevertheless opposed habeas relief. The State argued that Defendant was not eligible to earn meritorious deductions because the sentencing court had not affirmatively exercised its discretion to grant Defendant eligibility to earn deductions.

{¶9}The district court held a hearing on Defendant's habeas petition and, after hearing arguments, partially granted the petition. Relying on Tafoya, the court concluded that a serious youthful offender sentenced to less than life imprisonment is eligible to earn meritorious deductions and must be considered to have committed a "serious violent offense" under Section 33-2-34(L)(4). The court rejected the State's contention that "silence in the [j]udgment and [s]entence regarding good-time equates to zero days per month credit," and rejected Defendant's contention that such silence "equates to thirty . . . days per month." The court further reasoned that "not including first degree murder as a serious violent offen[s]e or discretionary


serious violent offense would lead to a nonsensical result" in light of Tafoya, 2010-NMSC-019.

{¶10}Accordingly, the habeas court determined that Defendant's judgment and sentence rendered him eligible to earn meritorious deductions of up to four days per month. The court also concluded that Defendant was eligible to earn lump-sum credits as provided by Section 33-2-34(D) and (E). The court ordered that Defendant's judgment and sentence be amended to conform to this legal conclusion.

{¶11} The State timely filed a notice of appeal. We have jurisdiction over this appeal from a grant of a petition for writ of habeas corpus under Rule 12-102(A)(3) NMRA.


{¶12}We consider whether the district court correctly concluded that Defendant is eligible to earn meritorious deductions within the framework of the EMDA. This is a question of law that we review de novo. Dominguez v. State, 2015-NMSC-014, ¶ 9, 348 P.3d 183 (reiterating that, when reviewing a ruling on a petition for writ of habeas corpus involving questions of law or questions of mixed fact and law, a de novo review assures that this Court maintains its role as arbiter of the law).


{¶13}The authority of a district court to impose a sentence is derived from statute. State v. Chadwick-McNally, 2018-NMSC-018, ¶ 24, 414 P.3d 326. "This limitation


on judicial authority reflects the separation of powers notion that it is solely within the province of the Legislature to establish penalties for criminal behavior." State v. Martinez, 1998-NMSC-023, ¶ 12, 126 N.M. 39, 966 P.2d 747 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Yet a court's sentencing authority "is not a purely ministerial task," and courts possess inherent discretion to fashion an appropriate sentence within the framework of our sentencing laws. Id. ¶ 13.

{¶14} Under the Criminal Sentencing Act, NMSA 1978, §§ 31-18-12 to -26 (1977, as amended through 2022), adults convicted of first-degree murder must be sentenced to either life imprisonment or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Section 31-18-14. Serious youthful offenders convicted of the same offense, however, may be sentenced to less than the mandatory life term for an adult. See § 31-18-15.3(D) (providing that a district court may sentence a serious youthful offender "to less than, but not exceeding, the mandatory term for an adult"); § 31-18-15.1(G) ("[W]hen the offender is a serious youthful offender or a youthful offender, the judge may reduce the sentence by more than one-third of the basic sentence."). In Tafoya, we determined that the...

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