Court upholds teen’s life sentence

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday reversed a lower-court ruling that a teenager sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for capital murder is entitled to a new sentencing hearing.

The high court said new proceedings are needed in circuit court to clarify issues in Ulonzo Gordon’s case that were not properly addressed by a Lee County circuit judge.

Gordon is serving a life sentence for the 1995 slaying of Otis Webster, 21, in Crittenden County. Prosecutors said at the time of Gordon’s trial that he was 18 when the killing occurred, but according to his current lawyers, his birth certificate shows he was 17.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional when applied to juveniles. Gordon filed a petition in June arguing that his sentence was illegal, and in August a Lee County circuit judge ruled that he was entitled to a new sentencing hearing.

The state appealed that ruling, and on Thursday the state Supreme Court unanimously reversed the circuit judge, finding that the judge did not follow proper procedures in issuing a writ of habeas corpus.

Those procedures should have included making a probable-cause finding that would have included establishing what Gordon’s age was at the time of the killing, the court said.