State appeal tossed in teen killer's case

Jury instructions proper, justices find

Posted: November 11, 2017 at 1 a.m.

The Arkansas Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by state attorneys on Thursday who had argued that a Crittenden County circuit judge erred in instructing a jury about what type of sentences the nation's highest court allows for juveniles.

The case came as the Arkansas Supreme Court is set to hear the appeal of a different case that is a constitutional challenge to Act 539 of 2017, which bars life-without-parole sentences for youths.

But on Thursday, justices found no reason to rule on the case from Crittenden County. In that case, state attorneys sought to have the high court rule that retired Circuit Judge David Goodson acted beyond their guidance and in error when he delivered his own instructions to jurors last year during the resentencing of a man who had killed as a teenager.

A split majority of the court simply dismissed the case.

A series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court over the past decade have all but closed the door on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Courts in Arkansas have adopted that precedent, and lawmakers voted earlier this year to remove such sentences from the law books.

Before the law was in place, but acting on previous court rulings, inmates serving life in Arkansas prisons began seeking new sentences for convictions of crimes committed in their youth.

One of those inmates, David Lasley, was resentenced to 40 years in a courtroom in Marion last year. Lasley had been convicted of capital murder for shooting a clerk at a J.C. Penney store in 1979 when Lasley was 17.

Before jurors decided Lasley's new sentence, they were instructed by Goodson that they could only impose a life sentence if "Lasley is that rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified."

State attorneys appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court for a declaration that Goodson had erred by using instructions not already vetted and approved. What Goodson said, they argued, left the impression that jurors could not choose to impose life.

The state did not seek to reverse Lasley's sentence of 40 years. Shortly after being resentenced -- and having already served 37 years -- Lasley was released from prison.

Marion Andrews Humphrey, Lasley's attorney who came up with the jury instructions, said in a phone call Thursday that he had culled specific language from U.S. Supreme Court rulings to show the court's intent.

"It leads you to the interpretation that people who are under 18 [should] not be given a life sentence," Humphrey said, adding that he was "ecstatic" the Arkansas Supreme Court had dismissed the state's appeal.

A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said the decision to appeal was made in consultation with the local prosecutor. The spokesman declined further comment on the outcome of the case.

Writing for the majority, Justice Courtney Goodson, who is not related to the lower-court judge, called the appeal improper, noting that state attorneys had not sought a reversal of any judgment. Her order questioned the impact of their argument.

"We do believe the limited number of individuals affected by Miller and Montgomery, coupled with the unsettled state of the law regarding the resentencing of juvenile offenders, is reason enough to find that the State has not demonstrated that the appeal of this matter involves the correct and uniform administration of the law," Goodson wrote, referring two two prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding juvenile offenders.

Act 539 gave prisoners serving life terms for crimes they committed before their 18th birthdays new opportunities at parole. Some of those prisoners, however, have sued to get entirely new sentencing hearings, in hopes they may become eligible for release sooner.

Citing numbers produced by the General Assembly, Justice Goodson wrote that about 100 people were made eligible for lighter terms under the new law but that the number is decreasing as some get separate hearings. The total number of prisoners who may be affected, she wrote, did not justify taking the state's appeal.

A dissent penned by Justice Shawn Womack, and joined by Justice Rhonda Wood, said the case did have "widespread ramifications." The justices said they would have referred the issue to the Committee on Criminal Jury Instructions.

NW News on 11/11/2017