- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) - The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that a trial court must reconsider the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of aggravated murder.

The court made the ruling Wednesday in overturning the sentence of Eric Long, who along with two adult defendants was sentenced to life without parole for two slayings in the Cincinnati area in 2009. Long was 17 when the crimes were committed.

The court ruled 5-2 that, given Long’s age, youth must be considered as a mitigating factor before such a sentence and sent the case back to the trial court. The ruling noted that the record must reflect that the court gave such consideration.

“Because the trial court did not separately mention that Long was a juvenile when he committed the offense, we cannot be sure how the trial court applied this factor,” the Supreme Court ruling said.

Long’s appeal claimed the sentence was unconstitutional as cruel and usual punishment and that he should have received the minimum sentence due to his age.

Julie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Hamilton County prosecutor’s office in Cincinnati, said prosecutors were notified that the judge will have to make a separate finding that youth was considered in determining the sentence. The prosecutor’s office doesn’t see any action it needs to take at this time, she said.

Stephen Hardwick, an assistant public defender who represented Long before the state Supreme Court, said he’s pleased with the ruling.

“We do recognize that this was a very serious crime, but the U.S. Supreme Court has held children are different, and this ruling recognizes that children are different. And that while they are still responsible for their criminal behavior, they are less responsible than an adult doing the same thing.”

Michael Benza, a senior instructor of law at Case Western University in Cleveland, said that any long-term effects of the ruling aren’t clear.

The Ohio Supreme Court noted that the U.S. Constitution requires trial courts to consider youth as a mitigating factor when sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for homicide.

“But this does not mean that a juvenile may be sentenced only to a minimum term,” the ruling said, adding that trial courts have sentencing discretion.

“The real question in the long term will be how we make these sentencing decisions,” Benza said.

The state Supreme Court noted that Ohio law provides general guidelines for sentencing.

A new Ohio statute would be necessary to tell courts how to distinguish between cases in which life without parole for a juvenile is appropriate and those in which it is not, Benza said.

Hardwick said a new state law isn’t needed but could be helpful. He also noted that the judge who sentenced Long did not yet have the guidance of the later U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said youth had to be considered as a mitigating factor.

Long and his co-defendants were convicted of aggravated murder in the slayings of Keith Cobb and Scott Neblett. Authorities said the two died of multiple gunshot wounds fired into their vehicle from another vehicle on Interstate 75 in 2009.

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