Virginia Supreme Court upholds life without parole sentence for juvenile offender

By Frank Green, Richmond Times-Dispatch – 2/3/2017

A divided Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday reinstated a life sentence without parole for a juvenile offender that the U.S. Supreme Court had asked it to reconsider.

In 2000, shortly before he turned 18, Donte Lamar Jones, now 34, and an accomplice robbed a convenience store in York County of $35. As they were fleeing, Jones shot a clerk in the back as she laid on the floor, killing her.

Under the terms of a plea agreement, Jones was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Then in 2012, in an Alabama case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles who commit murders are unconstitutional.

Jones filed a motion in York County to vacate his life sentence in light of the ruling. Capital murder calls for a sentence of death or life without parole.

But Jones ultimately lost when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that unlike in Alabama, a Virginia judge could suspend some or all of a life sentence and take into account the age, among other things, of a defendant.

Jones appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court held that its 2012 decision could be applied retroactively and, last March, the justices vacated life sentences without parole in dozens of pending cases — including Jones’ — which sent them back to lower courts for further consideration.

On Thursday, in a 4-3 split, the Virginia high court reaffirmed its earlier ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Alabama case did not apply in Virginia because he did not receive a mandatory life sentence.

A dissenting opinion states that it is unclear whether Jones received a hearing before he was sentenced as required in the Alabama case and that a hearing should be held to determine if he did.

If he did receive a hearing, the minority argues, Jones’ motion to vacate his life sentence should be denied, and if he did not, a new sentencing hearing should be held.

Bryan Jones, a Charlottesville lawyer representing another juvenile sentenced to life without parole, said Thursday that “the decision is disappointing, but not surprising.”

The majority opinion, he contends, is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent and rulings from other federal courts in Virginia.

“The dissent’s reasoning is consistent with U.S. Supreme Court case law. I hope Mr. Jones appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, where I believe this opinion will be overturned,” he said.

He added: “This case just means that for the moment Virginians will have to go through the federal courts to obtain relief from unconstitutional sentences.”

Steven Emmert, an appellate lawyer who practices before the Virginia Supreme Court, wrote in an analysis of the case on his website,, that he tends to agree that Virginia’s capital-murder sentencing does allow a trial court to consider the defendant’s youth and related factors.

“But in doing so, I’d hate to lose the avenue for delayed review that helped Richard and Mildred Loving obtain eventual justice,” Emmert wrote.

The Lovings pleaded guilty to violating Virginia’s law against mixed-race marriage in a case recently featured in a movie. The case was cited by the Virginia justices in both the majority and dissenting opinions in Jones’ case Thursday.

Years after the guilty plea, the Lovings sought to vacate the conviction, arguing that it was unconstitutional.

But there is a distinction between the Jones and Loving cases, Emmert explained: The Lovings convinced the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 that the conduct they were punished for could not legally be prohibited.