CHEYENNE, Wyoming — The Wyoming judicial system continues to wrestle with the question of how to handle juvenile killers in light of recent changes to state and federal law banning mandatory life sentences.
The Wyoming Supreme Court on Wednesday for the second time ordered a district judge to resentence one of three men convicted of murder in a 2009 home-invasion killing in Sheridan.
Dharminder Sen and two other teens were convicted of killing Sheridan businessman Robert Ernst in 2009. Authorities say Sen was 15 when he shot and killed Ernst. All three teens were convicted of murder.
District Judge John Fenn originally sentenced Sen to life in prison.
However, life sentences for Sen and his co-defendant Wyatt Bear Cloud were both affected by a 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that prohibited mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders. The third defendant was 18 at the time of the killing and wasn't affected by the court ruling.
Wyoming passed a law last year specifying juveniles convicted of murder will be eligible for parole after serving 25 years.
In response to the changing legal landscape, Fenn resentenced Sen earlier this year, saying he would be eligible for parole on the murder conviction after serving 35 years on the murder conviction. After serving that sentence, Fenn ordered Sen to then begin serving another sentence of 20 to 25 years on an aggravated burglary conviction.
Sen appealed that sentence, saying it amounted essentially to a life sentence in violation of the federal law.
In September, the Wyoming Supreme Court for the second time ordered Fenn to resentence Bear Cloud. The court ordered Fenn to consider all of Bear Cloud's convictions as a package. The resentencing hearing hasn't been held yet.
In its order on Wednesday, the court agreed with lawyers for both the state and Sen that his case should be handled the same way as Bear Cloud's and that he should be resentenced.
Diane Elizabeth Courselle, a law professor at the University of Wyoming, represented Sen on his latest appeal. She said Wednesday it's not possible to speculate what sentence he will receive other than to say Fenn can't impose more time against Sen than he previously did.
Wyoming's response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders has been better than some other states, Courselle said. While the court ruling did away with mandatory sentences, it still left open the possibility that states could impose such sentences in rare cases.
"Wyoming has taken that off the table, and I think that's a good thing," Courselle said of juvenile life sentences.
"It means we recognize how juveniles really are different," Courselle said. "I think that the fact that the Wyoming Supreme Court has recognized that, the Legislature has recognized that, is a positive sign sort of for not just these folks who end up with the life sentences, or who have committed crimes that lead to life sentences, but I think it could help other juvenile offenders."
An attempt to reach David Delicath, a senior lawyer in the Wyoming Attorney General's Office who has worked on Sen's case, for comment Wednesday wasn't immediately successful.