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Superior Court judge vacates sentences of four NH murderers

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 29. 2013 6:02PM

Four convicted murderers serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole will get new sentencing hearings because they were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes.

The new hearings don't necessarily mean their sentences will change, but attorneys for Robert Tulloch, Robert Dingman, Eduardo Lopez Jr., and Michael Soto will be able to introduce mitigating factors related to their age at the time of the crimes in the hope of inducing a judge to issue a reduced sentence.

Each was 17 at the time of his arrest. Lopez was convicted in a fatal shooting during an attempted robbery in 1991. Dingman was convicted in 1997 after a jury found him guilty of acting in concert with his younger brother in the murder of their parents.

Tulloch was one of two teenagers involved in the murders of two Dartmouth College professors in 2002, while Soto was convicted as an accomplice to first-degree murder after a fatal shooting in 2007.

Lawyers for the four men filed their appeals last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, "forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders."

The Supreme Court's reasoning was that "such a scheme imposes too great a risk of disproportionate punishment." Miller and an associated case involved 14-year-old boys whose cases were reversed and remanded for new sentencing proceedings.

Lawyers for the four New Hampshire men serving life without parole argued that the Miller decision should be applied retroactively to their clients because it was a substantive or "watershed" rule of criminal procedure, while the state's attorneys argued that Miller was merely a procedural ruling.

Superior Court Justice Larry Smuckler, presiding at Hillsborough Superior Court North in Manchester, agreed with the defense attorneys. In a ruling issued on Monday, he wrote that the Supreme Court infered in its ruling that "Miller" would be applied retroactively, and that it was a substantive change.

In the new sentencing hearing, a judge will now have to consider "chronological age and its hallmark features," according to the "Miller" ruling, including "immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences."

The sentence of life without parole for Steven Spader, convicted in the 2009 murder of Kimberly Cates in Mont Vernon, was upheld after a rehearing in April.

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