State v. Thomas


New Jersey


New Jersey Supreme Court

Citation and Year

269 A.3d 487 (2022)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

N.J. CONST., Art. I, Para. 12 (“cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted”)

Nature of Case

William Thomas received a life sentence with the possibility for parole for a double murder he committed at the age of 17. After 40 years of imprisonment and seven parole denials, Thomas petitioned to correct an unconstitutionally excessive life sentence, and argued that he was entitled to a judicial hearing that would include the sentencing protections for youth set forth in Miller v. Alabama.


“In an issue of first impression, we hold that defendant, who has now been imprisoned for more than four decades even though his sentence did not impose a specified period of parole ineligibility, has the constitutional right to an adversarial hearing to determine whether defendant still fails to appreciate risks and consequences [in accordance with Miller], and whether he has matured or been rehabilitated.”


The court relied on statistical data to show that William’s sentence of life with the possibility of parole (and no specified period of parole ineligibility) was a de facto life without parole sentence — specifically: “from January 1, 2019, to December 31, 2019, over 90 percent of the 445 inmates who were sentenced to life in prison that appeared before the Board were denied parole.” The court also relied on 8th Amendment case law discussing the mitigating aspects of youth and how they must be considered at sentencing, including Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama, and recent state law precedent — State v. Comer/Zarate — holding that a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence for youth amounts to de facto LWOP and youth must be afforded judicial review of their sentence after 20 years. The court extended these rulings to Williams’s situation of repeated parole denials, relying on his record of rehabilitation while in prison, psychological exams showing that he is at low risk of reoffending, and the fact that parole hearings are a poor substitute for adversarial judicial review.