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State Supreme Court case could result in new punishment for group of convicted juvenile murderers

Four convicted first-degree murderers who were 17 at the time of their crimes and who are serving mandatory life sentences without parole could win new sentences if the state Supreme Court decides a recent federal ruling should apply retroactively to their cases.

Mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles were banned last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. In their decision on the case, Miller v. Alabama, the court ruled that such punishment is cruel and unusual and therefore cannot be imposed on anyone under 18 without first holding a sentencing hearing.

The court did not, however, stipulate whether the change can be applied retroactively to cases that have already been decided and their appeals exhausted. The omission has left states to determine how to apply the ruling to former cases involving juveniles.

In July, Judge Larry Smukler of Merrimack County Superior Court ruled that the federal ruling should be applied retroactively, and that four men convicted in New Hampshire – Eduardo Lopez Jr., Robert Dingman, Robert Tulloch and Michael Soto – are therefore entitled to resentencing hearings in which mitigating factors are considered.

One of the central issues debated is whether the federal change is substantive or procedural. That question will also likely be argued before the state Supreme Court, which accepted the combined petition two weeks ago. Substantive rules – concerning the framework or nature of a crime, or the group of people punished by a law – are typically applied retroactively, while procedural rules – concerning how a law is enforced – are not.

Smukler said the change was substantive, writing that “it alters the range of outcomes of a criminal proceeding – or the punishments that may be imposed on juvenile homicide offenders.”

The state attorney general’s office, which opposes applying the ruling retroactively, disputes that decision in a court filing, contending that the federal change does not ban juveniles from receiving life without parole.

“On the contrary,” it states, “the holding in Miller was that life sentences for juveniles are constitutional provided the sentence is imposed on a discretionary, as opposed to a mandatory basis. It was the procedure for imposing the sentence in Miller that was found infirm . . . not the sentence itself.”

The petitioners have argued another point, which the state similarly disputes: that the federal court applied its ruling retroactively to a separate murder case that had already been decided, and that that demonstrates the court’s intent for the decision to apply retroactively.

It’s unclear how, or whether, the petitioners’ sentences would change should the state court side with them. University of New Hampshire School of Law professor Albert Scherr, a longtime criminal defense attorney, said he does not believe that any “of these people are going to walk out the door free.”

“I would not expect any judge to vary dramatically from the mandatory sentences,” he said.

Andrew Schulman, a Manchester attorney representing Soto, disagreed, at least with regard to his client.

“He might very well get a substantially different sentence,” Schulman said.

The four cases

Soto was convicted of being an accomplice to first-degree murder for the 2007 killing of Aaron Kar in Manchester. The 17-year-old Soto believed Kar had taken part in a baseball-bat beating of his friend, Roney White.

Soto provided White’s brother, Roscoe, with a gun and helped him search for Kar. After tracking him down, Soto cocked the weapon and handed it to Roscoe, who then fatally shot Kar in the leg and abdomen.

Lopez was convicted in 1993, two years after he murdered Robbie Goyette in downtown Nashua. Goyette and a friend were warming up a parked car when Lopez, then 17, approached with a gun and mumbled something incoherent through the window. Goyette started to drive away, but Lopez followed on foot, and as the car rounded a corner he shot Goyette point-blank in the neck. Goyette survived through the night at a nearby hospital, but died the next day.

On the night of the shooting, Lopez also shot a homeless man, who ultimately survived, and assaulted a police officer before being subdued and detained.

Lopez was initially treated as a juvenile, but because of the severity of the crime, a judge agreed to try him as an adult. Two years later, on June 23, he was found guilty of first-degree murder, a conviction that, at the time, brought an automatic sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

Dingman was convicted in 1997, following more than four days of jury deliberations, for orchestrating the shooting deaths of his parents a year earlier at the family’s home in Rochester.

In concert with his younger brother, Dingman, then 17, allegedly persuaded his younger brother, Jeffrey, to help him steal their father’s pistol from a cabinet that was usually locked so they could shoot their parents, Vance and Eve Dingman, both 40.

Jeffrey testified that he and Dingman both shot each parent, but that the crime was Dingman’s idea. Their parents’ bodies were found wrapped in plastic garbage bags in the home three days after they were killed. Both had been shot several times.

Dingman was found guilty of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and two first-degree murder charges, which brought two mandatory life sentences.

Tulloch, a former Chelsea, Vt., resident, pleaded guilty in 2002 to two counts of first-degree murder and one count of murder conspiracy for stabbing and killing two Dartmouth professors, Half and Susanne Zantop, inside their Etna home a year earlier. Tulloch and another Chelsea teenager, James Parker, had allegedly been received into the Zantop’s home after pretending to be students conducting a survey. Once inside, Tulloch stabbed Half with an assault knife and ordered Parker to slit Susanne’s throat.

Another murder case involving a man who was 17 was not included in this petition. Steven Spader was convicted in 2010 of killing a Mont Vernon woman with a machete and maiming her daughter. Spader’s mandatory life sentence, however, was overturned after last year’s federal ruling because he had an active appeal before the state Supreme Court when it was issued. In April, he received an identical life sentence plus 76 years without parole.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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