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Life sentence thrown out for Wyoming juvenile over prosecutor objections

Wyoming Supreme Court
Wikimedia Commons

Life sentence thrown out for Wyoming juvenile over prosecutor objections

The Wyoming Supreme Court threw out a lengthy sentence imposed on a teenager who was only 16 when he shot and killed another teenager.

Phillip Sam, who is now 18, was convicted of first degree murder and 12 counts of assault for the 2014 shooting of Tyler Burns. Sam was given an aggregate sentence that meant he was not not eligible for parole review until he was 70.

The U.S. Supreme Court previously held in Miller v. Alabama that automatic sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder were unconstitutional. The Court in Miller allowed for such sentences only if the sentencing judge “[took] into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” The Court later emphasized that such sentences could only be imposed on “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”

The first question for the Wyoming Supreme Court in Sam’s case was whether a chance for release in his 70s was the equivalent of a “lifetime in prison.”

The prosecution argued that Sam still had a chance at freedom.

The Wyoming Supreme Court rejected that argument.

Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Kate Fox, writing for the majority, held that that “[t]he prospect of geriatric release . . . does not provide a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate the maturity and rehabilitation required to obtain release and reenter society,” as required by the U.S. Supreme Court’s holdings.

Because Sam’s sentence was the practical equivalent of a life without parole sentence, Fox wrote, the trial court would have to have found that Sam was the rare exception of a juvenile whose “permanent incorrigibility” justified such an outcome. But because the trial court at sentencing “made the determination that Mr. Sam is not a juvenile so irredeemable that he deserves incarceration for the rest of his life,” the court held that the sentence he received violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Sandburg disagreed with the Wyoming Supreme Court’s ruling and said the trial court had, in fact, considered all relevant factors before handing down the sentence.

“I think ultimately the court could do exactly what it did again,” Sandburg said.

Thanks to Jake Sussman.

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