By Chuck Bartels | Associated Press/San Francisco Gate | May 15, 2014
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Supreme Court sustained a sentence on Thursday of life in prison without parole for a man who was 17 when he took part in a West Memphis killing, but the man’s lawyer said some pending cases might still clear the way for a new sentencing hearing.
The high court granted a state appeal of a circuit court ruling that had ordered a new sentence for Ulonzo Gordon, 37, who was convicted in the 1994 slaying of Otis Webster. Prosecutors said Gordon and another man shot at Webster in retaliation for the shooting of a different man.
Gordon’s defense had cited a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made it unconstitutional for juveniles to get long sentences without the possibility of parole. His attorney Jeff Rosenzweig said Thursday that there are two similar cases pending before the state Supreme Court and he believes that those rulings will open the door for Gordon to get a new sentencing hearing.
Prosecutors were under the impression that that Gordon was 18 when he was charged. Rosenzweig said that was because of a typo in a court document. He said Gordon’s birth certificate shows when he was born, that relatives know his birth date, and that the state hasn’t contested that Gordon was a juvenile when Webster was killed. The defense isn’t disputing Gordon’s guilt.
Associate Justice Karen R. Baker wrote for a unanimous court that the lower court failed to establish probable cause that Gordon deserved a new sentence before ordering the sentencing hearing.
“What are we going to have a hearing on? What is the issue?” Rosenzweig said Thursday, adding that the only issues are legal ones, such as whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling applies retroactively. Rosenzweig said during oral arguments on May 8 that that was the high court’s intention.
The two similar cases were tried in Phillips County and there was a delay in getting transcripts from those trials for appeal because the judge’s court reporter died, Rosenzweig said. Those transcripts are due at the end of the month, and Rosenzweig said he expects to see a state Supreme Court ruling in the cases by the fall, after which he expects a ruling for Gordon to be resentenced.
Rosenzweig said he’d hoped to consolidate the three cases but the transcript delay forced him to pursue Gordon’s case first.
A spokesman for the Arkansas attorney general’s office said in an email that he anticipates further appeals.
Baker wrote that the state was incorrect in its contention that Gordon couldn’t use a law that allows a hearing if someone has been illegally imprisoned. But she added that the lower court granted Gordon’s request without establishing probable cause that Gordon was wronged.
“Although the circuit court may have implicitly found that Gordon’s petition evidenced probable cause to issue the writ, the record demonstrates that a probable cause finding was not made,” Baker wrote.
Gordon’s case was sent back to circuit court for further proceedings.