Judge Agrees to Re-Sentence Juvenile Given 75-Year Punishment

May 12, 2015 | Law & Public Safety
An Essex County judge has agreed to re-sentence James Comer who was 17 when he was given a 75-year prison sentence.

By Michael Hill

When James Comer and two accomplices went on an armed robbery spree 15 years ago, one of the other robbers shot and killed a father of three because the man didn’t have any money to take.

Comer was 17 years and 3 months old — still a juvenile by law — but tried as an adult and convicted of several of those violent crimes.

His punishment added up to 75 years.

“But what he got was a sentence of 68 years before parole. That would certainly result in his dying in prison,” said attorney Lawrence Lustberg.

Lustberg and the ACLU of New Jersey appealed saying Comer would become “eligible for parole on his 86th birthday, more than two decades past his life expectancy” and that amounts to a life without parole sentence which the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t allow for minors unless they killed or intended to kill someone.

Essex County prosecutors said, “The state essentially concedes the fact that Defendant Comer will most likely die in prison, but refuses to characterize his sentence as de facto life without parole.”

The same Essex County judge who sentenced Comer heard the appeal and has agreed to re-sentence Comer. Judge Thomas Vena cited a 2012 Supreme Court case that held it’s unconstitutional to sentence those who were juveniles at the time of the crime to mandatory life without parole and that judges should consider a person’s youth as a mitigating factor in punishment.

Comer’s attorneys don’t make any argument about his guilt or innocence. They say the record is well established on that. Their concern was he was a juvenile 17 years and 3 months old at the time and that should have been factored into his punishment.

“I think a good argument could be made that even after 18 years of age the human brain is still developing and people are still showing the kind of impetuous, poor judgment for some period of time that is associated with youth,” Lustberg said.

“I think it sets a dangerous precedent,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, who is also an attorney.

Schepisi serves on the Judiciary Committee.

“So does this now start to maybe open up  a slippery slope that somebody who’s 18 can argue ‘well, I why was someone who was 17 years of age and three or four months able to have their sentence re-looked at and I’m only 18 and why can’t I have my sentence re-looked at as well?'” she said.

“The youth has to at least be considered. No one is saying by the way that Mr. Comer should get out, necessarily will get out, even before he dies in prison. But he should have the opportunity because he committed this crime as juvenile to show he’s rehabilitated,” Lustberg said.

Comer’s attorney say New Jersey has 15 to 20 juveniles serving sentences that amount to life. No word on if they will appeal or any court will reconsider their punishment. For now, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office says it will appeal and no date has been set yet to re-sentence Comer in this case described as groundbreaking in New Jersey.