in the Court of Appeals 7 August 2019.
by Defendant from judgment entered 19 January 2018 by Judge
Jerry R. Tillett in Camden County No. 15CRS50149 Superior
Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney
General Derrick C. Mertz, for the State.
Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate
Defender James R. Grant, for Defendant.
Ames ("Defendant") appeals from judgment entered
upon a jury verdict finding him guilty of first-degree
murder. On appeal, Defendant challenges his sentence of life
without the possibility of parole. Defendant argues that the
trial court applied the incorrect legal standard in
sentencing him to the harshest punishment possible for a
crime he committed as a juvenile. We agree. We therefore
vacate the trial court's judgment and remand the case for
Factual and Procedural Background
September 2015, 18-year-old Nahcier Brunson shot and killed
17-year-old Unique Graham in Camden Causeway Park. The only
witness was Defendant, then 17 years old.
and Brunson and Defendant knew one another through
Defendant's sister. Graham and Defendant's sister
were dating at the time of the shooting. Their relationship
had caused friction between Graham and Defendant; both
parties had pressed criminal charges against each other that
were subsequently dismissed. At the same time, Brunson was
"dating [and] messing around" with Defendant's
sister. Brunson and Defendant were new acquaintances, having
only known each other for approximately two weeks at the time
of the shooting.
Murder, Investigation, and Trial
evidence at trial tended to show that Defendant went to law
enforcement the day after the shooting, 28 September 2015. He
stated that he had discussed robbing a drug dealer with
Brunson and Graham. However, while acknowledging that he was
present when Brunson shot and killed Graham, he claimed he
played no part in the shooting. Police then arrested
Defendant for being an accessory after the fact. After his
arrest, Defendant claimed he was not actually present at the
interviewing Defendant, police executed a search warrant of
his house. There they found a gun, which Defendant admitted
was used in the murder. Police then placed Defendant under
arrest for first-degree murder.
confronted by police, Brunson initially claimed that he
played no role in the killing. Within the next two days,
however, he accepted full responsibility, indicating that he
had acted alone in killing Graham. After his arrest, Brunson
said the same in a letter to Defendant's trial lawyer and
in an interview with a local news channel.
trial, however, Brunson testified that Defendant had
orchestrated the killing. More particularly, Brunson
testified that on the evening of 27 September 2015 Defendant
drove him to Camden Causeway Park. Once at the park,
Defendant and Brunson both walked down the wooden walkway.
According to Brunson's trial testimony, Defendant then
called Graham and asked him to participate in a robbery with
them. Graham agreed. Defendant asked Brunson who should hold
the gun on the way to pick up Graham; believing this to be a
question about who would be armed during the robbery, Brunson
volunteered to do so and put Defendant's gun in his
waistband. After picking Graham up, the three youths returned
to the walkway at Camden Causeway Park to smoke marijuana.
After Brunson and Defendant finished smoking marijuana,
Brunson testified that Defendant "fell back" as
they walked down the walkway. Defendant then
"indicated" for Brunson to shoot Graham by tapping
Brunson and making his hand into the shape of a gun. Brunson
testified that he looked at Defendant twice to see if
"he was for real[, ]" and then he shot and killed
trial, the State also introduced "kites," or jail
letters, between Defendant and Brunson written while both
were incarcerated and awaiting trial. One found in
Defendant's cell read in part:
I [Defendant] was told that if he does tell the court people
that I was honestly had nothing to do with the murder and
that he [Brunson] kidnapped me, then that will help me out a
lot and they just drop the charges against me . . . . If they
do drop the charges against me, then I still got to fight to
get the murder charges dropped, but what he would have to
tell them is I had nothing to do with it and he made me drive
communication came after Brunson told police he alone was
responsible for the murder and gave a news interview stating
the same, but before his letter to Defendant's trial
counsel accepting full responsibility. A fellow inmate also
testified that Defendant confessed to him that "he
planned the murder."
was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury on 19 January
same court session, the trial court conducted a brief
sentencing hearing. Defense counsel called one witness,
Defendant's mother. She testified that Defendant grew up
in a household plagued by domestic violence and was exposed
to violence visited upon her by both his father and
stepfather. She further testified Defendant played football
and ran track in high school while also maintaining good
grades. Finally, she testified that Defendant completed high
school and earned his high school diploma while incarcerated
counsel argued that a sentence of life without parole was
inappropriate based on this evidence. Defendant had no prior
criminal record, was not the shooter, and there was a
"strong likelihood that [Defendant would] benefit from
rehabilitation and confinement." Counsel contended
confinement had not "stop[ped] [Defendant] from moving
on with parts of his life[, ]" referencing his
completion of his high school education while in jail.
State asked for a sentence of life without the possibility of
parole. The State argued Defendant "manipulated"
the shooter, Brunson, and that Defendant had
"manifest[ed] an effort to, in some respects, obstruct
justice." Finally, the State contended Defendant had not
"show[n] a second of remorse" for the period
leading up to and during trial. The State presented no
evidence at sentencing.
oral order, the trial court sentenced Defendant to life
without the possibility of parole. The court's oral order
was as follows:
At this juncture, the Court has considered the arguments
made. The Court's considered the factors of mitigation
that are possible under Chapter 15A-1340.19B, together with
those that have been argued by defense counsel and the State.
The Court finds that the defendant did have no record at the
time - no prior criminal record at the time of this offense.
The Court finds that he was 17 at the time of the offense.
The Court finds that the defendant has demonstrated that he
did have an ability to appreciate the risk and consequences
of his conduct in that he engaged at various times throughout
the process and the process of investigation with schemes to
cover his conduct or deter others from providing information
that would be detrimental to him.
In addition, the Court finds that there is no evidence of
immaturity that would be countenanced under what the Court
interprets the intentions of this statute, which has a narrow
application to a person who is convicted of first degree
murder who, at the time, had not attained the age of 18.
Limited to that general class of persons, the Court finds
there is no evidence of immaturity that would not otherwise
be applicable to all those within that class.
The Court finds that there is no evidence of mental illness
or impairment. There's no evidence of any familial or
peer pressure exerted upon the defendant relative to the
commission of this offense.
The Court does find that the defendant had an intellectual
capacity that was not impaired and may have been, in fact,
above average in that the defendant had been transferred or
made arrangements to be transferred to a different high
school other than his original county, was participating in
sports and was making As, Bs, and Cs.
The Court finds that there is no evidence before the Court at
this juncture of the likelihood that the defendant would
benefit from rehabilitation and confinement other than that
of other class of persons who may be incarcerated or may be
incarcerated for the offense of first degree murder.
The Court finds that the mitigating factors that have been
found, that is of no record and the age, are outweighed by
the other evidence in this case of the nature of the offense
and the manner in which it was committed, specifically that
of involving another person who the Court concludes was
manipulated by the defendant; also taking advantage of a
position of what may have been trust or confidence in that
the victim was - a scheme was concocted to lure the victim to
ride with the defendant under a ruse and under a scheme which
ultimately resulted in his vulnerability and his death.
The Court concludes that life without parole is the
to trial, the State had offered Defendant a plea deal that
would have resulted in him serving 16 to 30 years in ...