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The Nebraska Supreme Court vacated the sentences of three men, Juan Castaneda, Eric Ramirez, and Douglas Ramitch, who were convicted as teenagers to a sentence of life without parole. A district court will now re-sentence all three men, taking additional factors of their youth at the time that could mitigate their sentences.
Underlying the case was a 2012 decision from the United States Supreme Court, Miller v. Alabama (132 S.Ct. 2455), which held that a sentence of life without parole for a crime committed by a juvenile violated the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and its guarantee that citizens will be free from “cruel and unusual punishment.”
It was not immediately clear upon the decision in Miller, however, that the sentences in question would have been impermissible. Under Nebraska law at the time of sentencing, individuals have a right to parole once they served one-half of a minimum sentence. However (at least for Castaneda), the only sentence entered was “life imprisonment.” The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that, because it is impossible to calculate what half of a “life imprisonment” sentence is, functionally that means the sentence is life without parole, even if that does not expressly appear on the sentence itself.
The State further argued that the Miller ruling should not apply because Castaneda had the possibility of parole in the form of a sentence commutation. Under Nebraska law, the Board of Pardons (specifically, the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of State) can commute a sentence, which would make the individual eligible for parole.
But the Nebraska Supreme Court said that the mere possibility of a commutation from the Board of Pardons (a function of the executive branch of Nebraska’s government) does not satisfy the requirements of the United States Supreme Court in Miller. Instead, the right of parole for juveniles sentences to life imprison must be “meaningful” and not subject to “executive clemency.”
Castaneda and the other two individuals will be re-sentenced by a district court judge. They may still face life imprisonment, so long as there is a possibility of parole in compliance with Miller and the terms of the new Nebraska Supreme Court decisions.