NJ Supreme Court issues decision that may allow juveniles serving life sentences for murder to be released early

On January 10, 2022, the NJ Supreme Court issued a controversial decision in the matters of State v. James Comer and State v. James Zarate, joining 13 other states in modifying the sentencing structure for juveniles serving life sentences.

In a 4-3 ruling, the Court held that sentencing juveniles to a term of life imprisonment with a parole ineligibility period of 30 years was “cruel and unusual punishment” and, therefore, a violation of their rights under the United States and New Jersey Constitutions. Juveniles are now able to petition for release after serving 20 years in prison. They must demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated and do not pose a danger to the community. The ruling was likely intended to ignited hope for some juveniles that they will have a second chance and motivate them to work towards rehabilitation during their prison term.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, who wrote in the majority opinion, indicated that the law was intended to memorialize 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.” The Court’s decision can be read in its entirety here.

The American Civil Liberties Union estimated that there are 60 inmates who could potentially be affected by the ruling. Most of them are represented by the New Jersey Public Defender’s Office, which also argued the case before the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Comer’s attorney was quoted as saying that there have been numerous studies that favor rehabilitation. People tend to grow up and “age out” of crime, he said. “The social science is overwhelming that most juveniles will be rehabilitated after 20 years.” “We know this as a matter of brain science, that after 20 years most juvenile defendants are not going to be recidivists.”

Comer was 17-years old in April 2000 when he joined in a robbery spree in Essex County, during which one man was shot to death. Comer never fired a shot, but was tried as an adult, convicted of felony murder, and sentenced to 75 years in prison.

Zarate was only 14-years old when he joined his 18-year old brother in the horrendous murder and dismemberment of the teenager who lived next door. The two brothers lured the girl to their basement, where they beat and stabbed her before dismembering her body and stuffing it into a trunk. The following night, they tried to throw the trunk off the Union Avenue Bridge into the Passaic River, but were spotted by a police officer. Zarate was tried as an adult, convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison (which equates to 75 years). He has repeatedly appealed his sentence, and will now be eligible to petition the Court for release in 3 years.

For more infomation, the NJ.com article can be found here.

If you or a loved one has been arrested and charged with a violent offense in New Jersey, or are facing waiver to adult court, you need an attorney who understands and can help you navigate the complicated juvenile justice process. Alissa Hascup, Esq. represents juveniles charged with serious offenses throughout the State. Contact her office 24/7 at 862-257-1200. Initial consultations are always provided free of charge.