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Court to Decide if 4 Should Be Resentenced

Concord — Robert Dingman was in a courtroom yesterday for the first time since he was given a mandatory life sentence in 1997 for killing his parents a year earlier at age 17.

He is one of four New Hampshire convicted killers seeking a new sentencing hearing and a chance at a lesser sentence under a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says mandatory life terms for those under the age of 18 when the killings occurred amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The four include Robert Tulloch, who was convicted in the 2001 stabbings of Dartmouth College professors Half and Susanne Zantop in Hanover.

Also seeking new sentencing hearings are Eduardo Lopez Jr., convicted of shooting a man during a robbery in Nashua in 1991 and Michael Soto, who supplied the gun used in a Manchester street shooting in 2007.

Only Soto and Dingman appeared at the hourlong hearing yesterday in Merrimack Superior Court. Tulloch and Lopez waived their right to be present.

All four were 17 at the time of the killings for which they are now serving mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Robert Dingman was convicted — along with his 14-year-old brother, Jeffrey — of shooting their parents in their Rochester home in 1996. Jeffrey struck a plea deal with prosecutors and testified against his brother in exchange for a 30-year-to-life sentence for second-degree murder.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin argued that the Supreme Court ruling should not be applied retroactively to cases where direct appeals have been exhausted — which is the case with all four convicts.

Attorney Richard Guerriero, who represents Tulloch, argued the ruling should apply to every convict serving a mandatory life sentence for crimes committed under the age of 18.

“The court meant this to be retroactive,” Guerriero said.

The court’s June ruling in Miller v. Alabama did not categorically bar life sentences for juveniles, but it said trial judges must first consider whether the convict’s lack of maturity and vulnerability to peer pressure mitigate against life behind bars.

Since that decision was handed down, courts across the country have been divided over whether it should be applied retroactively. The ruling itself is silent on the issue, as Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler stressed.

“The court never used the word ‘retroactive,’” Smukler said.

Strelzin distinguished the Miller ruling from other U.S. Supreme Court rulings that barred certain penalties for all juveniles, including a prohibition on capital punishment for those under 18 when the crime occurred and barring mandatory life sentences for juveniles for crimes other than murder.

“A complete ban is what you need for retroactivity,” Strelzin argued.

Attorney Caroline Smith, who represents Dingman, said all four convicts, despite being grown men now, “are serving a sentence that was cruel and unusual when it was imposed at 17.”

Smukler did not indicate when he would rule. It is expected that however he rules, the decision will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Steven Spader, convicted of hacking a Mont Vernon woman to death with a machete and maiming her daughter during a 2009 home invasion when he was 17, was the first to secure a resentencing hearing on the Supreme Court ruling. He instructed lawyers not to present evidence on his behalf, however, and was resentenced last month to the same sentence he received in 2010 — life without parole plus 76 years for convictions on related crimes.

Prosecutors agreed to a resentencing hearing in Spader’s case because he still has an appeal pending in the New Hampshire Supreme Court, so his case is not deemed to be final.