The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled Friday that four men who committed murders as juveniles, including the killer of two Dartmouth College professors in an infamous 2001 slaying, deserve new sentence hearings, vacating their terms of life in prison without parole.
In a unanimous decision, the court found that a 2012 US Supreme Court decision, which struck down mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles as unconstitutional, should be considered retroactive.
In its landmark decision, the high court ruled that juvenile offenders have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform” and judges should be able to consider the “mitigating qualities of youth” in sentencing.
The New Hampshire attorney general’s office said it had not decided whether to appeal the decision. Elizabeth Woodcock, assistant attorney general, said that while the convicts are now entitled to sentencing hearings, they could still be resentenced to life without parole. “Each may present evidence at the hearing, but the hearing court is not required to change the sentence,” she said.
The decision has spurred appeals of life sentences across the country and led to the release of three prisoners in Massachusetts in recent months. But the killing of Half and Susanne Zantop in their Hanover, N.H., home is perhaps the highest-profile crime to be revisited.
Robert Tulloch was 17 when he and his best friend, 16-year-old James J. Parker, chanced upon the Zantops’ home in search of someone to rob. The two teens were from Chelsea, Vt., a tiny town some 30 miles away.
The teenagers knocked on the couple’s door, said they were conducting an environmental survey for school, and were let inside. After they spoke for more than 10 minutes, Tulloch attacked Half Zantop, 62, with a knife. When Susanne Zantop, 55, heard her husband’s screams and rushed into the room, Tulloch ordered Parker to cut her throat. The case garnered national headlines for its random brutality.
In 2002, Tulloch pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. Parker was sentenced on a plea bargain to 25 years to life and is not affected by Friday’s New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling.
The daughters of the Zantops could not be reached for comment Friday and a spokesman at Dartmouth College declined to comment.
Lawyers for several of the prisoners praised the ruling, saying their clients deserved a chance at a lesser sentence and the possibility of parole. Their first-degree murder convictions automatically sentenced them to life behind bars.
“I thought it was the right result,” said Andrew Schulman, who represented one of the prisoners affected by the ruling, Michael Soto, who was convicted of first-degree murder for the 2007 killing of Aaron Kar in Manchester.
Soto was not the shooter but “wiped the gun with his shirt, racked the slide to cock it, and handed it’’ to the person who actually pulled the trigger, according to court records.
Another convicted killer, Eduardo Lopez Jr., was 17 years old when he shot and killed Robert Goyette in Nashua in 1991. Another, Robert Dingman, also 17, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in 1997 for orchestrating the shooting deaths of his parents and coercing his then-15-year-old brother, Jeffrey, to participate in the killings.
The lawyer for Tulloch, convicted in the Zantops’ deaths, could not be reached for comment.
Despite their legal victory, the men are likely to remain in prison for years to come, legal specialists said.
“They are still going to get hefty sentences,” predicted Albert Scherr, a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.
Scherr said judges who issued the initial sentences will conduct the sentence hearings, if they are still on the bench.
Under guidelines set forth by the Supreme Court in what is known as the Miller decision, sentencing hearings should consider the juvenile’s background, life circumstances, and the nature of the crime, legal specialists said.
In Massachusetts, the parole board this month voted to release a 38-year-old who was convicted in a 1992 murder, a day after granting parole to a 36-year-old convicted of stabbing a man following a fight at a party despite objections from prosecutors and the victim’s family.
Nationally, the Miller decision has sparked intense debate in the courts and legislatures. New Hampshire is the seventh state to rule that it applies retroactively, according to Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
Massachusetts is among the states that applies the ruling retroactively. Four states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Louisiana — have ruled that it does not.
“We’re seeing different responses across the country,” Levick said.
More than 2,000 prisoners across the country are serving mandatory life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles, specialists say.
Other states, including Massachusetts, have “completely taken life without parole off the table” for juvenile offenders, she said. The Miller decision affects 28 states where juveniles convicted of first-degree murder are automatically sentenced to life without parole.
Levick praised the New Hampshire ruling, saying the court “got it exactly right.”