LITTLE ROCK — A man who received a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of parole for a crime committed when he was 17 is entitled to a new sentencing hearing, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

LITTLE ROCK — A man who received a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of parole for a crime committed when he was 17 is entitled to a new sentencing hearing, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.


In a unanimous decision, the state’s highest court upheld a circuit judge’s ruling that overturned the life-without-parole sentence of Ulonzo Gordon, now 38, who was convicted in the 1995 slaying of Otis Webster, 21, in Crittenden County.


In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional when applied to juveniles. It issued the ruling in a consolidation of two cases, one of them an appeal by Kuntrell Jackson of Arkansas.


In June 2013, Gordon filed a petition arguing that in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, his sentence was illegal. In August 2013, a circuit judge ruled in Gordon’s favor and ordered a new sentencing hearing.


The state appealed, and in May 2014 the Arkansas Supreme Court sent the case back to circuit court, finding that the circuit judge had not followed proper procedures. Those procedures should have included making a probable-cause finding that established what Gordon’s age was at the time of the killing, the state Supreme Court said.


The circuit judge later issued an order establishing that Gordon was 17 when the crime occurred and that he was entitled to be resentenced because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.


The state argued on appeal that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in the case Teague v. Lane established that unless they fall within an exception to the general rule, new constitutional rules of criminal procedure are not applicable to cases that became final before the new rules were announced — i.e., they are not retroactive.


In its opinion Thursday, the state Supreme Court said the U.S. Supreme Court established in its 2008 ruling in Danforth v. Minnesota that state courts are not required to adopt the Teague rule.


"We have never expressly adopted the Teague rule, and we hold that the particular posture of this case makes it unnecessary to decide as a general matter whether this court will do so," Justice Robin Wynne wrote in the state Supreme Court’s opinion.


Instead, the court said it was affirming the circuit judge’s ruling out of fairness. The court said it previously granted a new sentencing hearing to Jackson after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his case, and it would be "patently unfair to decline to do so for other prisoners who are similarly situated."


The court said it was not unmindful of the state’s arguments that Gordon had received a fair trial and a sentence that was lawful at the time of his conviction, and that it should consider the costs of a new sentencing hearing, both in resources and in human suffering — particularly of the victim’s family.


"These are compelling interests, but we hold that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment outweighs the factors favoring finality," Wynne wrote in the opinion.


Act 1490 of 2013 changed Arkansas’ sentencing laws to eliminate mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders, although the law retains that punishment as an option juries can choose when warranted.


Earlier this year, state Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, filed a bill that would have eliminated all life sentences for juvenile offenders, but the bill was defeated in the House.