Wyoming Supreme Court affirms murder sentence

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled that a Laramie County District Court judge got Phillip Sam’s sentence right the second time around.

After being convicted of one count of first-degree murder and 12 counts of aggravated assault and battery for crimes he com- mitted when he was 16 years old, Judge Thomas Campbell originally sentenced Sam to a prison term that left him eligible for parole after 52 years.

Although they upheld his conviction, justices ruled that sentence essentially amounted to a life sentence, which violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They sent the case back to Campbell, whose second try makes Sam eligible for parole after 35 years behind bars.

On Thursday, the Wyoming Supreme Court upheld that the sentence was appropriate for Sam, who fatally shot one person and injured several others near Martin Luther King Park in 2014.

This means Sam will be eligible for parole when he is 51 years old. The district court also found that Sam should be treated as a juvenile in the case and isn’t one of the “rare” juveniles who is “irredeemable.”

The Supreme Court analyzed whether the aggregate sentence is the equivalent of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

In a previous case, the Supreme Court found that a 35-year sentence did not trigger juvenile protections to prohibit a de facto life sentence. Though in a different case, the Supreme Court found that a 45-year sentence without the possibility of parole did trigger juvenile protections to prevent a de facto life sentence.

The Supreme Court looked at the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Miller v. Alabama, where a 14-year-old boy was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on a murder charge. The U.S. Supreme Court found this unconstitutional, and it said “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.”

The Wyoming Supreme Court opinion went on to cite case law that stated juvenile murder offenders should have some “hope for some years of life outside prison walls.”

In his latest appeal, Sam’s lawyers said his 35-year sentence is too similar to the highest sentence allowed by the Wyoming Supreme Court to be coincidental. The appeal went on to say the sentence ignores the district court’s requirements to consider the offender and not just the crime.

But the Supreme Court said it found no support of this argument in the court record, and noted the lower court heard testimony from Sam’s mother and a child psychologist prior to sentencing.

“The record shows that the district court did not arbitrarily craft Mr. Sam’s sentence, and instead considered the multiple crimes, the impact on the victims and their families, Mr. Sam’s behavior in committing the crimes, his juvenile history and his prospects for rehabilitation,” the Wyoming Supreme Court opinion stated. “These were all proper considerations, and Mr. Sam has thus failed to show a constitutional violation or an abuse of discretion in the district court’s sentencing decision.”

In October 2014, Sam stole a .40-caliber Smith and Wesson semi-automatic pistol from his mother’s boyfriend and fatally shot Tyler Burns and injured Damian Brennand.

Sam and a group of boys around his age had gotten into a verbal fight earlier in the night when Sam slashed the tires of a car belonging to one of the boys he was fighting with, and broke its windows and mirrors.

Later, when the group of boys found out, they agreed to meet with Sam at Martin Luther King Park to fight, according to the court documents. Sam brought the gun to the fight, and when the boys arrived, he shot Burns in the chest, head and hand.