- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The mandatory sentence of life without parole for a man convicted of killing three people in a Minneapolis market when he was a teen was vacated Wednesday by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The case was sent back to Hennepin County for a hearing to see whether a sentence with parole would be more appropriate for Mahdi Hassan Ali, based on factors relating to his age at the time of the killings.

Prosecutors say Ali was 17 when he shot and killed three people on Jan. 6, 2010, at Seward Market and Halal Meat. He was charged as an adult and convicted in 2011 of multiple counts, including first-degree premeditated murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life without release.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles amount to cruel and unusual punishment, and are therefore unconstitutional. The court, however, didn’t rule out such sentences for teens altogether, only the mandatory aspect. A judge could still issue a no-parole sentence for a teenager, but must take into account “the mitigating qualities of youth,” such as a failure to understand the ramifications of their actions.

Ali was one of eight people in Minnesota serving mandatory terms of life without parole for murders they were convicted of committing when they were teens. The Minnesota Supreme Court previously ruled the federal decision regarding juvenile sentences is not retroactive, but since Ali’s case was on appeal when that decision came out, the justices found Wednesday that it applies in his case.

In Wednesday’s 62-page opinion, the majority found that the lower court should hold a hearing, then re-impose a life without parole sentence if it finds that the possibility of release isn’t warranted. If the court finds parole is warranted, it should impose a sentence of life with the possibility of release after 30 years.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, said the purpose of the hearing is to give the court the chance to consider mitigating circumstances, which the U.S. Supreme Court suggested might include a defendant’s age, immaturity, home environment or peer pressure.

“These factors, while not exclusive, establish a useful starting point,” Gildea said.

Justices Alan Page and David Stras dissented. While both agreed a mandatory life-without-parole sentence is unconstitutional with respect to juveniles, they disagreed with the majority’s reasoning, and said a sentence of life with the possibility of release should be imposed.

Even if Ali is given the chance for parole, it is unlikely he will be released in the near future, as he also was given two consecutive sentences of life with the possibility of release after 30 years.

Prosecutors say Ali killed 28-year-old market employee Osman Elmi; his 30-year-old cousin Mohamed Warfa; and 31-year-old customer, Anwar Mohammed, during a robbery attempt. An accomplice pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

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