State v. Comer

Decision Date10 January 2022
Docket Number084516,A-42 September Term 2020,A-43 September Term 2020,084509
Citation249 N.J. 359,266 A.3d 374
Parties STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. James COMER, a/k/a James B. Comer and James F. Comer, Defendant-Appellant. State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. James C. Zarate, a/k/a Navajas Zarate, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Lawrence S. Lustberg, Newark, argued the cause for appellant in State v. Comer (A-42-20) (Gibbons, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation, and Lone Star Justice Alliance, attorneys; Lawrence S. Lustberg, Alexander Shalom, Jeanne LoCicero, and Avram D. Frey, on the briefs).

Frank J. Ducoat, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent in State v. Comer (A-42-20) (Theodore N. Stephens, II, Acting Essex County Prosecutor, attorney; Frank J. Ducoat, of counsel and on the briefs).

Alyssa Aiello, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant in State v. Zarate (A-43-20) (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Alyssa Aiello, of counsel and on the briefs).

John McNamara, Jr., Chief Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent in State v. Zarate (A-43-20) (Robert J. Carroll, Morris County Prosecutor, attorney; John McNamara, Jr. and Jessica Marshall, Assistant Prosecutor, on the briefs).

Joseph J. Russo, Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for amicus curiae Public Defender of New Jersey in State v. Comer (A-42-20) (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Alicia J. Hubbard, of counsel and on the brief).

Jennifer E. Kmieciak, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey in State v. Comer (A-42-20) (Andrew J. Bruck, Acting Attorney General, attorney; Jennifer E. Kmieciak, of counsel and on the brief, and Lauren Bonfiglio, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

Dillon J. McGuire, Hackensack, argued the cause for amicus curiae Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey in State v. Comer (A-42-20) (Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, attorneys; CJ Griffin, of counsel and on the brief, and Dillon J. McGuire, on the brief).

Natalie J. Kraner argued the cause for amici curiae Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Incarcerated Children's Advocacy Network, New Jersey Parents’ Caucus, Transformative Justice Initiative, The Beyond the Blindfold of Justice Project, Formerly Incarcerated Youth, and New Jersey Incarcerated Youth in State v. Comer (A-42-20), and State v. Zarate (A-43-20) (Lowenstein Sandler, and The Rutgers Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic, attorneys; Natalie J. Kraner, Anthony J. Cocuzza, Stephanie Ashley, Laura Cohen, Elana Wilf, and Tyler Dougherty, on the brief).

Carol M. Henderson, Assistant Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey in State v. Zarate (A-43-20) (Andrew J. Bruck, Acting Attorney General, attorney; Carol M. Henderson, of counsel and on the brief, and Jennifer E. Kmieciak and Lauren Bonfiglio, Deputy Attorneys General, on the brief).

Alexander Shalom, Newark, argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey in State v. Zarate (A-43-20) (Gibbons, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation, and Lone Star Justice Alliance, attorneys; Lawrence S. Lustberg, Alexander Shalom, Jeanne LoCicero, and Avram D. Frey, on the brief).

Rachel E. Simon argued the cause for amicus curiae Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey in State v. Zarate (A-43-20) (Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, attorneys; Aidan P. O'Connor, of counsel and on the brief, and Darcy Baboulis-Gyscek, on the brief).

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This appeal raises challenging questions about the constitutional limits that apply to sentences for juvenile offenders.

The law recognizes what we all know from life experience -- that children are different from adults. Children lack maturity, can be impetuous, are more susceptible to pressure from others, and often fail to appreciate the long-term consequences of their actions. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 477, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012). They are also more capable of change than adults. Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 68, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010). Yet we know as well that some juveniles -- who commit very serious crimes and show no signs of maturity or rehabilitation over time -- should serve lengthy periods of incarceration.

The issue before the Court is how to meld those truths in a way that conforms to the Constitution and contemporary standards of decency. In other words, how to impose lengthy sentences on juveniles that are not only just but that also account for a simple reality: we cannot predict, at a juvenile's young age, whether a person can be rehabilitated and when an individual might be fit to reenter society.

The question arises in the context of two juveniles who committed extraordinarily serious crimes for which they received long sentences. In one case, the juvenile offender, who was convicted of felony murder, will not be released for three decades and cannot be considered for parole throughout that time. In the other appeal, it will be more than four decades before the 14-year-old offender, convicted of purposeful murder, will first be eligible to be considered for parole.

Both juveniles argue that their sentences violate federal and state constitutional provisions that bar cruel and unusual punishment. See U.S. Const. amend. VIII ; N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 12. They ask the Court to find that a mandatory sentence of at least 30 years without parole, which N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(b)(1) requires, is unconstitutional as applied to juveniles.

We decline to strike that aspect of the homicide statute. But we recognize the serious constitutional issue defendants present under the State Constitution. The Court, in fact, anticipated the question in 2017 and asked the Legislature to consider amending the law to allow juvenile offenders who receive sentences with lengthy periods of parole ineligibility to return to court years later and have their sentences reviewed. State v. Zuber, 227 N.J. 422, 451-53, 152 A.3d 197 (2017).

Today, faced with actual challenges that cannot be overlooked, we are obligated to address the constitutional issue the parties present and cannot wait to see whether the Legislature will act, as the State requests. That approach is consistent with the basic roles of the different branches of government. The Legislature has the responsibility to pass laws that fix the range of punishment for an offense; the Judiciary is responsible to determine whether those statutes are constitutional. Under settled case law, courts also have the authority to act to protect statutes from being invalidated on constitutional grounds.

Here, the statutory framework for sentencing juveniles, if not addressed, will contravene Article I, Paragraph 12 of the State Constitution. To remedy the concerns defendants raise and save the statute from constitutional infirmity, we will permit juvenile offenders convicted under the law to petition for a review of their sentence after they have served two decades in prison. At that time, judges will assess a series of factors the United States Supreme Court has set forth in Miller v. Alabama, which are designed to consider the "mitigating qualities of youth." 567 U.S. at 476-78, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (quoting Johnson v. Texas, 509 U.S. 350, 367, 113 S.Ct. 2658, 125 L.Ed.2d 290 (1993) ).

We provide for the hearing, rather than strike the homicide statute on constitutional grounds, because we have no doubt the Legislature would want the law to survive. The timing of the hearing is informed by a number of sources, including acts by the Legislature and other officials.

At the hearing, the trial court will assess factors it could not evaluate fully decades before -- namely, whether the juvenile offender still fails to appreciate risks and consequences, and whether he has matured or been rehabilitated. The court may also consider the juvenile offender's behavior in prison since the time of the offense, among other relevant evidence.

After evaluating all the evidence, the trial court would have discretion to affirm or reduce the original base sentence within the statutory range, and to reduce the parole bar to no less than 20 years. A juvenile who played a central role in a heinous homicide and then had a history of problematic behavior in prison, and was found to be incorrigible at the time of the later hearing, would be an unlikely candidate for relief. On the other hand, a juvenile who originally acted in response to peer pressure and did not carry out a significant role in the homicide, and who presented proof at the hearing about how he had been rehabilitated and was now fit to reenter society after two decades, could be an appropriate candidate for a lesser sentence and a reduced parole bar.

The Appellate Division rejected the juveniles’ constitutional claims. We therefore reverse and remand both matters for resentencing. We express no opinion on the outcome of either hearing.

I.

We discussed the facts underlying defendant James Comer's convictions in a prior opinion. See Zuber, 227 N.J. at 433-34, 152 A.3d 197. We briefly refer to the facts again here.

During the evening of April 17 and the early morning of April 18, 2000, Comer and two others participated in four armed robberies. During the second robbery, an accomplice shot and killed a robbery victim. At the time, Comer was 17 years old.

Comer was prosecuted as an adult, and a jury convicted him of felony murder, armed robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, weapons offenses, and theft. The trial judge originally sentenced Comer in 2004 to an aggregate term of 75 years in prison with 68 years and 3 months of parole ineligibility. The sentence included a term of 30 years’ imprisonment with 30 years of parole ineligibility for first-degree felony...

To continue reading

Request your trial
27 cases
  • State v. Thomas
    • United States
    • New Jersey Superior Court — Appellate Division
    • January 19, 2022
    ...and whether he has matured or been rehabilitated," utilizing the procedure recently adopted by our Supreme Court in State v. Comer, 249 N.J. 359, 370, 266 A.3d 374. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for the trial court to conduct that adversarial hearing.We derive the following facts from ......
  • State v. Ryan
    • United States
    • New Jersey Supreme Court
    • February 7, 2022
    ...prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.That finding, however, can hardly be squared with this Court's consolidated opinion in State v. Comer and State v. Zarate, issued just one month ago. In those cases, we stated that "children are different from adults" because they "lack matu......
  • State v. Booker
    • United States
    • Tennessee Supreme Court
    • November 18, 2022
    ...§ 213.12135 (West, Westlaw through Ch. 2 (End) of 33rd Sp. Sess. 2021) (20 years, but not for multiple victims); State v. Comer , 249 N.J. 359, 266 A.3d 374, 380–81 (2022) (permitting juvenile homicide offenders to petition for a 20-year look-back hearing applying Miller factors to avoid co......
  • Fletcher v. State
    • United States
    • Alaska Court of Appeals
    • May 12, 2023
    ...(quoting Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 480 (2012)). [82] Id. at 205-06. [83] Id. at 214-15. [84] Id. at 215. [85] State v. Comer, 266 A.3d 374, 381-87 (N.J. 2022). [86] Id. at 382. [87] Id. at 386. [88] Id. at 387-88. [89] Id. at 394-96. [90] Id. at 396. [91] Id. at 399. [92] Id. at 399-......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT