NC Supreme Court finds effective life sentence for 15-year-old defendant unconstitutional

Tabor City teen raped and murdered his own aunt
Riley Conner
Riley Conner(NC Department of Public Safety)
Published: Jun. 20, 2022 at 3:59 PM EDT
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NORTH CAROLINA. (WECT) - A divided North Carolina Supreme Court has found in favor of a Columbus County man who was effectively sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed at 15 years of age. Riley Conner admitted to the 2016 rape and murder of his own aunt. But the high court found that because of his young age at the time of the crime, in addition to his horrendous upbringing, the punishment was too severe.

Conner’s parents had been in and out of prison since he was a young child. Court records show that they were both addicted to cocaine, and Conner grew up in a crime ridden area of Tabor City where he would be shuffled between extended family members, often being exposed to drugs and prostitution with little adult supervision.

A family member testified Conner’s “mother and father [were] constantly in and out of his life. They were not by [any] means anywhere close to being stable parents. They rejected [defendant] time and time again.” His parents missed most of his early birthday celebrations, and Conner was ridiculed at school because classmates knew his parents were drug addicts.

Conner started to use marijuana when he was nine years old, and began drinking alcohol on a regular bases when he was 11. He also began taking Xanax to get high, and by age 12, he was sexually active. He was expelled from multiple schools, and stopped attending school all together in 6th grade.

“Defendant was supposed to be home schooled by his grandmother, but in actuality, defendant was a ‘free agent.’ He spent his days at an abandoned trailer on Savannah Road ‘to hang out and do drugs’ with his older cousin.... a very negative role model.... [who] sold heroin, methamphetamine, and pills,... and regularly and illegally provided drugs to defendant,” the State Supreme Court decision reads.

By 13, Conner was diagnosed with frontal lobe epilepsy, which he was sporadically medicated for. He began to use opiates at 13 and heroin by 14. His first known run-in with the law was on March 2, 2016. He was charged with breaking into a grocery car to steal cigarettes. The following week, on the same day he was scheduled to see a juvenile court counselor for stealing, Conner murdered his aunt.

Court records show he knocked on the door at her Savannah Road trailer, and convinced her to come outside before raping her and killing her by hitting her with a shovel. He hid her body in a wooded area about 100 yards from her home.

Later that week, Conner’s seizures became so severe he had to be hospitalized. A doctor found the “seizures are associated with psychiatric agitation” and that significant behavioral changes “could well be due to uncontrolled frontal seizures.” Another doctor noted that “frontal lobe epilepsy may affect a patient’s ability to regulate his emotions and prevents a patient from getting adequate sleep.” Before being released from the hospital, Conner was physically assaulted by his mother, resulting in a complaint being filed with the Department of Social Services.

After his release from the hospital, Conner was questioned by law enforcement about his aunt’s murder. He first blamed her sexual assault and death on the older cousin known to give him drugs, but later admitted he had also raped her and helped hide her body. He was arrested for murder on March 30, 2016. Nearly three years later, as part of a plea deal with the state, Conner pled guilty to first-degree rape and first-degree murder.

Conner filed a motion with the court arguing that a sentence of life without parole would be unconstitutional because he was a juvenile, but the court denied that motion. He was then sentenced to life in prison with the possibility for parole after 25 years, and another 20 years for the rape charge, to be served at the conclusion of his murder sentence.

Under that structure, Conner would be 60 years old before he first became eligible to be considered for parole. Superior Court Judge Michael Stone overruled defense counsel’s objection that the two consecutive sentences were effectively a sentence of life without parole, in violation of the 8th amendment of the US Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In recent years, the courts have been taking a fresh look at the 8th amendment as it applies to juveniles. “The continually evolving societal view of juveniles in the criminal justice system, as well as the ongoing discoveries via scientific research regarding the special vulnerabilities and developmental malleability of youthful offenders,” the court explained in it’s opinion for State vs. Conner.

“A careful review of pertinent case law... mandates our conclusion that juvenile offenders who have received sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility for parole, while not guaranteed parole at any point during their respective terms of incarceration, nonetheless must have the opportunity to seek an early release afforded by the prospect of parole after serving no more than forty years of incarceration,” the majority ruled.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Berger said the majority may not have liked the stiff sentence, but it was appropriate and constitutional following a conviction on multiple violent crimes.

“Defendant broke her arm and nearly every bone in her face. Her front teeth were knocked out. Defendant was questioned... and provided a myriad of lies while attempting to conceal his involvement in Felicia’s murder,” Berger wrote. “It seems unusual then that the majority would conclude that defendant’s possible sentence of forty-five years with parole is constitutionally suspect, especially since defendant committed two separate violent crimes - homicide and rape.... The majority darts into the legislative lane, usurping legislative authority by enacting its new law simply because they find this result ‘desirable’ for violent juveniles.”

Chief Justice Newby and Justice Barringer joined Berger in their dissent.

“I’m disappointed by the ruling of a divided supreme court panel, but nonetheless we will abide by that court’s decision,” Columbus County District Attorney Jon David said in reaction to the court’s decision. “However, in doing that, I want to reassure the citizens of Columbus County that we will fight very hard to keep Riley Conner in prison for as long as possible.”

“I certainly understand the narrative that youthful offenders are redeemable, they are capable of second chances, and many of the policies at the District Attorney’s office reflect that philosophy,” David added. “But in this particular case, it was a particularly brutal set of facts, and had this been committed by an adult, it would still be one of the most heinous crimes I’ve ever witnessed in my 25 years of prosecution. So we take Riley very seriously because he committed a very adult offense.”

The case will now go back before the lower court for a resentencing hearing to address the Supreme Court’s concerns.

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