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Life Sentence Allowed for Juvenile Defendant

January 22, 2016 | Posted In Appeals

In the 2010 case of Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to life in prison unless they have committed murder, but one New Jersey man will continue to serve his minimum 55-year aggregate sentence for the crimes he committed as a juvenile.

The New Jersey appellate court determined that, in the case of Ricky Zuber, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, which would normally be applied retroactively to juvenile cases, does not apply because Zuber may have the opportunity to be paroled before he dies. Zuber was charged with participating in two gang rapes, one involving a 16-year-old-girl when he was 17, in November and December 1981. He was arrested in December 1981, and has been in jail ever since.

Zuber was tried as an adult and was convicted of multiple sex crimes. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms, one for each rape. The first sentence was 50 years in prison, with a 25-year minimum, and the second was 60 years, with a 30 year minimum. With this sentence, Zuber, who is now 51, will have to wait at least 55 years before he is eligible to apply for parole. At that time, in 2036, Zuber will be 72, and will have spent the majority of his life behind bars.

In their decision, the three-judge panel ruled that the “defendant’s sentence of 55 years before parole is not the functional equivalent of life without parole because it gives him a meaningful and realistic opportunity for parole well within the predicted life span for a person of [his] age.” The panel cited life-expectancy tables to estimate that Zuber has a life expectancy of at least 80. With parole at 72, the appellate judges said that he could be free for 8 years or more. 

Rehabilitation and Penalization

Juvenile crimes are hard to sentence because young defendants often need rehabilitation just as much as they need to pay for their actions. A young teen is certainly capable of committing a serious crime, but trial as an adult, with adult penalties and the potential to serve time in an adult prison, can lead to a death sentence.

Juvenile defendants who have the opportunity to serve time and move forward have the chance to turn their lives around and break free from the circumstances that led them to crime in the first place, especially in gang-related crimes.

The appellate court’s decision may have a rippling impact on other appeals that use Graham v. Florida to seek a shortened sentence. If your child was convicted of juvenile crimes and still has significant time left to serve, the New Jersey appeal attorneys at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, may be able to help. Talk to your attorney about your options today.

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