New Mexico Supreme Court Clarifies Right-Time Eligibility for Juveniles Convicted of First-Degree Murder

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Judge Briana H. Zamora

AOC News:

SANTA FE — A juvenile sentenced to less than life for first-degree murder can only earn good time credit if the sentencing court explicitly allows it, the Supreme Court said today of State.

In a unanimous opinion, the Court overturned a district court ruling in a habeas corpus proceeding that Norman Cates was entitled to earn up to four days of good time against his sentence for each month he served in prison . The Meritorious Earned Deductions Act (EMDA) allows up to 30 days of good time credit for inmates incarcerated for non-violent offenses and up to 4 days of credit for inmates incarcerated for a serious violent offense.

Cates was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for the first degree murder of a 65-year-old female Roy who was his neighbor. He was 17 at the time of the 2004 murder. The victim, Lena Barrett, was repeatedly stabbed, beaten and choked to death while sleeping in her home.

“In this notice, we clarify that a serious young offender serving less than a life sentence only becomes eligible for merit deductions if expressly authorized to do so by the sentencing court. We find that the defendant’s original judgment and sentence are silent as to his eligibility for good time, and that he is not eligible to earn merit deductions,” the court wrote in an opinion by Judge Briana H. Zamora.

Adults convicted of first degree murder should be sentenced to life in prison or life without the possibility of parole and the law does not allow a lifer to get good time credit against that sadness. However, the law allows a court to impose a sentence less than life imprisonment on a serious young offender – a person between the ages of 15 and 18 charged with first degree murder.

Fourteen years after his conviction, Cates filed a habeas corpus petition in district court to clarify his eligibility for good time credit that could reduce the actual time he has to serve in jail. He has participated in therapeutic and educational programs in prison, including passing a high school equivalency exam and speaking at outreach events for at-risk youth. The Department of Corrections did not grant Cates time for these activities.

In his motion, Cates argued that he should be recognized for his good behavior in prison because the sentencing court did not expressly limit his eligibility. The district court determined that Cates could earn up to 4 days of good time credit for each month in jail under the EMDA. The Supreme Court overturned.

“We conclude that a serious young offender does not become eligible for meritorious deductions solely by virtue of a sentence of less than life imprisonment. However, in exercising its discretion to sentence a serious young offender to less than the mandatory adult life sentence, a sentencing court may specify that the offender is eligible to deductions within the existing EMDA framework,” the court wrote. Because the sentencing judge in Cate’s case did not specify that he would be eligible for a good time, he is not eligible to receive it.

Judges ordered case returned to district court to restore Cates’ original judgment and sentence.

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