Court Affirms 45-Year Sentence for Defendant Who Committed Crimes at Age 15, Despite Argument That It Is a De Facto Life Sentence

Recent Cases in Law and Neuroscience, Curated by the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior and the Shen Neurolaw Lab with support from the Dana Foundation

Center for Law, Brain & Behavior
3 min readAug 30, 2021


Above: Riley Conner. (The News Reporter)

On December 31, 2020, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina affirmed the 45-year sentence of Riley Dawson Conner for rape and murder, crimes he committed at age 15. Conner had appealed the sentence on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional de facto life sentence. One judge dissented, agreeing with Conner’s claim.

Conner pled guilty to the crimes and was sentenced to 240 to 348 months for rape, and to a consecutive sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 25 years for murder. Taken together, the earliest Conner could be released is at age 60.

On appeal, Conner argued that his sentences are the “functional equivalent” of a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence, which is unconstitutional for juveniles (those under 18 at the time of their offenses) under Miller v. Alabama and its progeny.

The appeals court held that Conner’s sentences were not unconstitutional in violation of the Eighth Amendment, as Conner will be eligible for parole when he is 60 years old. The court found that “based on the evidence before the trial court a 45-year sentence imposed on this 15-year old does not equate to a de facto life sentence” and noted that the life expectancy for a 15-year-old is recognized to be 61.7 years by the state’s general statutes.

One judge dissented in part. In his separate partial dissent, that judge described Conner’s upbringing, noting that he had been diagnosed with ADHD and potential PTSD at the age of eight, began using drugs and alcohol by age nine, and was diagnosed with frontal lobe epilepsy at age 12. In 2014, Conner was diagnosed with “mild conduct disorder, severe cannabis use disorder, moderate alcohol use disorder, and sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use disorder” and in 2016, his seizures began to grow increasingly severe.

The week after he committed the offenses, Conner was admitted to the hospital for his seizures, where an MRI revealed “‘scarring’ and ‘damage to [Conner’s] frontal lobe on the right side’ in the form of mesial temporal sclerosis, possibly as the result of multiple head injuries dating back to the age of five.” A psychiatrist and neurologist both informed his mother that Conner’s epilepsy affected his behavior.

During sentencing, a forensic psychologist testified that “The adolescent brain doesn’t preclude a person from knowing … right from wrong, but it does influence their ability to make good decisions and not be under the influence of impulse and not considering consequences. But I strongly believe that [Conner] has the potential to change.”

The dissenting judge stated that he would “hold that Defendant’s imprisonment for a minimum of 45 years and earliest possible release at age 60 still presents a de facto LWOP sentence” because the sentence does not “offer a meaningful opportunity for release.” The judge also noted that the life expectancy for a 15-year-old cited in the majority opinion does not consider Conner’s health, including his epilepsy, head injuries, drug use, and psychological diagnoses.

The appellate court found that the trial court did err by ordering Conner to enroll in lifetime satellite-based monitoring without a hearing. The court therefore remanded the issue for a hearing.

Citation: State v. Conner, 853 S.E.2d 824

Keywords: North Carolina, LWOP, Miller v. Alabama, epilepsy, adolescent brain, de facto life sentence

This post is the 82nd post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.