ST. PAUL — The state’s highest court upheld the life imprisonment of a young man from Montgomery who murdered his father.
Attorneys for Jonas David Nelson, 24, appealed his automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Just one week after he turned 18 years old in 2014, Nelson fatally shot his father in their Montgomery home. A Le Sueur County jury found him guilty of premeditated murder.
Nelson was developmentally delayed and the victim of psychological abuse, his defense said.
They argued Nelson should be given a hearing to consider mitigating factors instead of being automatically sentenced to life without parole. That is the standard for juveniles. To not afford that opportunity to Nelson violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment, his defense argued.
The majority of Minnesota Supreme Court justices decided they do not have the authority to overturn a state law that is clear: a life sentence without the possibility of parole is mandatory for anyone age 18 or older who commits premeditated murder.
“We recognize the ethical, moral, and public policy-based concerns implicated by the facts of Nelson’s case,” the ruling states. “These concerns, however, are better left to the Minnesota Legislature.”
Two of the justices wrote dissenting opinions arguing they did have the legal grounds to overturn the sentence.
“The court’s decision to uphold the harsh sentence in this case reflects an overly rigid, inflexible, view of the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and an inconsistent application of Minnesota’s standards for defining adulthood,” Justice Margaret Chutich wrote.
Nelson’s defense team cited the U.S. Supreme Court cases that found automatic life without parole for juvenile offenders unconstitutional. The precedence-setting rulings, known as the Miller/Montgomery rule, made references to “offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth.”
The Miller/Montgomery rule should be extended to young adult offenders who acted with the immaturity of youth, the defense argued.
The argument was first made in Le Sueur County District Court in 2018. Judge Jessica Maher denied the request for a new sentencing and an appeal was filed to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2019. The Supreme Court issued its split decision this week.
In an opinion written by Justice Natalie Hudson, the majority of justices had sympathy for Nelson but found no cause to overturn law that sets the line of adulthood at age 18.
“In short, this is an extremely tragic case,” the opinion states. “Nelson was only one week beyond his 18th birthday when he killed his father, and the record is replete with evidence of Nelson’s cognitive and social delays and years of psychological and emotional abuse. The Miller/Montgomery rule, however, is clearly limited to juvenile offenders under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.”
In her dissent, Chutich noted other state laws don’t uniformly treat 18-year-olds as adults, including not allowing them to smoke or drink.
“Nelson’s chronological age at the time of the offense — 18 years and 7 days — does not mark him as an adult,” she wrote. “Societal norms and constitutional principles require that we provide him with an individualized sentencing determination; that is, a hearing at which mitigating circumstances — his personality, his upbringing, and his unique attributes — are taken into consideration before imposing the ‘harshest possible penalty.’”
Nelson’s defense team also contended that the section of the Minnesota Constitution banning cruel or unusual punishment provides greater protection than the U.S. Constitution. But the Supreme Court declined to consider this argument because it had not previously been made before the Le Sueur County Court.
It’s the second time the Supreme Court has made a ruling on Nelson’s case. In 2016 the court dismissed lesser charges but declined to overturn Nelson’s first-degree murder conviction.