State v. Comer/State v. Zarate


New Jersey


New Jersey Supreme Court

Citation and Year

249 N.J. 359 (2022)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

NJ Constitution, Art. I, Para. 12 (“cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted”)

Nature of Case

In these consolidated cases, referred to as Comer, the New Jersey Supreme Court reviewed the sentences of two children who had been convicted as adults for murder under the state’s homicide statute, which requires a minimum 30-year sentence without parole.

James Comer was convicted of felony murder and given a 30-year sentence after participating in a robbery where the victim was killed.. He was 17 at the time. James Zarate received a 50-year sentence for participating in a murder with his older brother when he was 14 years old. Under New Jersey’s No Early Release Act, Zarate would have to serve 85% of the sentence, or about 42.5 years, before becoming eligible for parole.

Comer and Zarate argued that their sentences were unconstitutionally cruel and that the statutory sentencing requirement, as applied to children, violated both the United States and New Jersey Constitutions.


A 30-year mandatory minimum before parole eligibility was unconstitutional as applied to children under the state constitution. While declining to declare the statute itself unconstitutional, the Court added a lookback provision to allow children sentenced under the statute to request judicial review of their sentence after 20 years.


The Court did not take issue with the length of the sentences, but with the sentencing framework, identifying the constitutional concern as twofold: “the court’s lack of discretion to assess a juvenile’s individual circumstances and the details of the offense before imposing a decades-long sentence with no possibility of parole; and the court’s inability to review the original sentence later, when relevant information that could not be foreseen might be presented.” While the Court indicated that lengthier sentences were appropriate for some children, it acknowledged the tension with the “simple reality [that] we cannot predict, at a juvenile’s young age, whether a person can be rehabilitated and when an individual might be fit to reenter society.”