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Steven Spader walks into Courtroom 4 in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Nashua, New Hampshire Friday, Oct. 29, 2010. Spader is on trial for his role the murder of Kimberly Cates and attack on her daughter Jaimie in Mont Vernon, NH, in Oct. of 2009. (AP Photo/Don Himsel)
Thursday, September 20, 2012

Mont Vernon killer will get new sentencing hearing under SCOTUS ruling

While the conviction of Mont Vernon killer Steven Spader can’t be overturned, the process for reconsidering his sentence of life in prison without parole will start next week.

A structuring conference will be held Wednesday, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year invalidated Spader’s mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole, meaning that he was entitled to a new sentencing hearing.

Lawyers will meet with Judge Gillian Abramson next week to set up a timeline for a new sentencing hearing, according to Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin.

Spader was 17 when he and Christopher Gribble, both of Brookline, brutally murdered 42-year-old Mont Vernon mother Kimberly Cates and attacked Jaimie Cates, then 11, in the fall of 2009. After his 2010 trial, Spader was sentenced to life without parole for first-degree murder, plus 76 years to life on other charges.

Once the jury issued its guilty verdict on all charges, Abramson had no leeway when she sentenced Spader to life in prison without parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision issued in June ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

The structuring conference will be held at Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision left judges the option of sentencing juveniles to life in prison, but said state laws cannot mandate that sentence.

Strelzin said in a previous interview that Spader’s case was the most likely to be affected by the ruling because it is still on appeal before the Supreme Court. Other cases, including that of Robert Tulloch, convicted in the Dartmouth murders, also may reappear on court dockets.

Public defenders have submitted motions in three other cases at courts around the state, Strelzin said.

The state didn’t protest the request for a hearing. It agreed the Supreme Court decision applied to Spader’s case and the sentence would have to be talked about again, Strelzin said.

He said the attorney general’s office has identified two more cases to which the ruling may apply – Robert Dingman, who was convicted of killing his parents in Dover in the late 1990s when he was 17, and Eduardo Lopez, who was 17 when he shot 31-year-old restaurateur Robert Goyette on a Nashua street in 1991.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision requires that juvenile defendants must have the chance to present evidence about their “immaturity and potential for rehabilitation” at a sentencing hearing, according to a motion for a new sentencing hearing filed by Spader’s defense attorneys, Jonathan Cohen and Andrew Winters.

Strelzin said Spader is only entitled to a new sentencing hearing, not a trial. The U.S. Supreme Court decision may overturn verdicts in others states that, unlike New Hampshire, allow juries to assess sentences instead of a judge.

A call to Cohen and Winters’ office was not immediately returned Wednesday afternoon.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, issued in June, said mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders violated their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashua telegraph.com. Also follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).