The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday said Circuit Judge Jodi Raines Dennis was correct when she denied a petition from prison inmate Hershel Glen Murry, who claimed he was serving an illegal sentence.
Murry, now 50, was convicted of first-degree murder in the Jan. 11, 1980 death of his mother, Nedra Sharp, in Little River County when he was 17, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Although the conviction was in Little River County, Murry filed in the appeal in Jefferson County Circuit Court because he is being held at a prison unit in the county.
In the appeal, Murry argued that his sentence was illegal because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred the imposition of sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders.
The unsigned State Supreme Court ruling said Murry was incorrect because the U.S. Supreme Court ruling applies to Arkansas only when a mandatory life sentence was imposed without a jury being able to consider how children are different and how those differences should be considered before sentencing a child to a life in prison.
Murry was charged with and convicted of first-degree murder, which at the time was a Class A felony punishable by a sentence of five to 50 years or life in prison, and the jury was free to sentence Murry to any term within that range.
First-degree murder is now a Class Y felony, and carries a sentence of 10 to 40 years or life in prison.
At the time of Murry’s conviction, the only mandatory life sentence in the state was for capital murder, and Murry was not charged with or convicted of capital murder.
The punishment for a person convicted of capital murder is death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The court ruling said Murry’s life without parole sentence was not mandatory, but rather was imposed by a jury after deliberations, so the federal ruling does not apply.
Murry also contended in the appeal that the sentence was illegal because he was not allowed a juvenile-to-adult transfer hearing, but instead was sent to adult court, despite his age.
The Arkansas court ruling, however, said that nothing in the federal case required a transfer hearing, and that in many states, including Arkansas, juveniles of a certain age who commit specific crimes are tried as adults.
“Because (Murry’s) sentence was not mandatory, but was instead chosen from a range of possible punishments, he cannot demonstrate that his sentence is illegal,” the ruling said.