Update: After the Supreme Court of Ohio sent this case back for re-sentencing, the trial court again sentenced Long to life without the possibility of parole. The appeals court affirmed this sentence, and on February 17, 2016 the Supreme Court of Ohio declined to hear the case again. So it looks like it’s over for Mr. Long.
Eric Long was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of life without the possibility of parole for his role in two homicides in Hamilton County in March of 2009. He was seventeen when the crimes were committed. The First District Court of Appeals affirmed Long’s sentence.
On March 12, 2014, in State v. Long, 2014-Ohio-849, in a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court of Ohio reversed Long’s sentence, and sent the case back for re-sentencing.
While the justices unanimously agreed that a trial court must consider youth as a mitigating factor in imposing a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile offender, and has considerable discretion in the weight the factor of youth deserves, the justices split 5-2 on whether the trial court actually and properly did consider the youth factor in this case. The majority held that the case had to be sent back for resentencing to be sure that the defendant’s youth was given the proper consideration in the sentencing mix.
In a separate concurrence to the majority opinion, Chief Justice O’Connor emphasized the discretion trial judges have in sentencing, and noted that in remanding the case for re-sentencing, the court was not expressing any opinion on the merits of Long’s sentence—which could remain the same after the proper considerations were undertaken.
Justice O’Donnell, joined by Justice Kennedy, dissented from the decision to send the case back for re-sentencing. He found that the trial court did sufficiently indicate that it had considered Long’s youth as a mitigating factor before imposing sentence, and the lack of a more substantial record on this point was because of Long’s failure to present anything specific for the judge to consider.
Read the analysis of the merit decision in Long here.
On remand, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Ethna Cooper again sentenced Long, then twenty-two years old, to life without the possibility of parole.
At the end of the re-sentencing hearing, Judge Cooper expressly stated that she had considered Long’s youth and the influence of the two older co-defendants at his original sentencing hearing, but had found that these factors were outweighed by the horrific acts he engaged in. She also commented on Long’s institutional behavior of fighting, procuring drugs, failure to co-operate in his psychological evaluation, and total lack of remorse, concluding with these remarks:
“I desperately wanted youth to be your mitigating factor, but there is zero evidence before this court, either at the time of the original sentencing or now, given the opportunity four years later to show me that youth is a mitigating factor. It pains me to say it, but I’m sorry. Given the evidence before this court, the original sentence is going to stand.”
Long appealed again to the First District Court of Appeals. On June 3, 2015, the appeals court again unanimously affirmed his sentence. While acknowledging that the U.S. Supreme Court has said that imposing a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile should be uncommon, “Long is the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” (quoting and citing Miller v. Alabama, Roper v. Simmons, and Graham v. Florida.)
The appeals court found that the trial judge did properly consider Long’s youth as a mitigating factor on re-sentencing, but also properly found that numerous aggravating factors, such as lack of remorse and future dangerousness outweighed any mitigating factors. The appeals court also rejected arguments by Long that his sentence was contrary to law, that he was only convicted of complicity, not homicide, and therefore the state failed to prove his intent to kill, that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel, and that he didn’t have an adequate chance to present mitigating evidence.
Since the imposition of life without the possibility of parole on a juvenile homicide offender in Ohio is discretionary, not mandatory, Ohio’s statutory scheme does not run afoul of the U.S Supreme Court decisions on sentencing juvenile offenders. But the U.S. Supreme Court has never decided whether there should be a categorical, per se ban on life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, having declined to address that issue in Miller. We’ll see if Long’s case is headed that way.