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(Tribune News Service) — A man imprisoned for over 40 years for killing two teenagers when he was 17, shortly before he joined the U.S. Army, has won a new court hearing to argue for his freedom.

A state appeals court ruled Wednesday that William Thomas deserves to argue his numerous parole denials in Superior Court, where he can have a lawyer, present evidence and cross examine witnesses, unlike a state parole hearing, a process that has repeatedly denied his parole since 1995, when he was first eligible.

The decision is important, as it comes after, and references, the New Jersey Supreme Court decision last week to allow juveniles charged with murder to such a similar court hearing after 20 years in prison – lowering for them the typical 30 years without parole standard.

In that decision, called the Comer decision, a split 4-3 court recognized the science that children’s brains are not fully developed as teens, and that people can change from adolescence to adulthood in impulse control and impetuousness. And they deserve a right to argue for re-sentencing after 20 years, and present evidence they have indeed changed in prison, the decision found.

Similar arguments were made in Thomas’ case, and while the appeals court found he should be afforded a Comer-style court hearing, his case differs a bit.

What type of person Thomas was in 1980 and who the 59-year-old prisoner is now is key, said Deputy Public Defender Joseph J. Russo, the appeals chief who argued the case. Simply put, Thomas is a changed man, and a model prisoner, he said.

“He has taken full responsibility for his crimes ... and is no longer the person he was over 40 years ago, when he was a reckless teenager,” Russo said.

Thomas was 17 when he beat Lee Miller and June Johnson to death with a tire iron in a wooded area near a water-filled sand pit in the Bargaintown neighborhood of Egg Harbor Township in May 1980. Teens used to gather there, and one newspaper said it was a bit of a Lovers Lane at the time.

Miller was also 17, Johnson was 15, and they were from nearby Northfield. They were hitchhiking when Thomas and his 19-year-old cousin, William Mancuso, picked up the pair and drove to the secluded area.

Thomas and Mancuso had been drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and using methamphetamines, the appeals decision says. Thomas beat Johnson on the head, she fled, Mancuso joined the attack, and Thomas beat Miller when he came to the girl’s aid. Both were later found dead at the scene.

The next morning, Mancuso told Thomas what happened, hut Thomas said he could not remember. He left the state, joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Germany. Mancuso confessed the next year and implicated Thomas.

Thomas was tried as an adult and pleaded no contest to two counts of murder. He was sentenced to concurrent life terms – with no mandatory minimum time served before parole eligibility.

Mancuso took a cooperating plea deal for 10 years in prison, for Johnson’s murder only.

Thomas was eligible for parole in 1995, and was denied.

This started a pattern of Thomas being consistently denied parole for over 20 years, despite his increasing improvement and progress in rehabilitation, substance abuse and addiction programs, Russo said and the decision describes.

Over the years, Thomas has had no prison infractions, got his high school diploma, studied the electric trade and now serves basically as the electrician for East Jersey State Prison in Rahway. More importantly, he’s passed 18 psychological examinations – 17 by the state Department of Corrections psychologist, Russo said.

The Parole Board, which as recently as 2019 and 2020 denied Thomas parole, relied on the facts and circumstances of his offense, and their conclusion that he had insufficient conflict resolution and “lack of insight into his criminal behavior.”

In addition to denying parole each time, the Parole Board seven times tacked on lengthy FETs, or future eligibility terms, which pushes back an inmate’s parole eligibility. In Thomas’ parole denials, the FETs alone comprise an aggregate 48 years, the decision says.

Also, Thomas appealed his parole denials many times, but trial court judges and appeals judges upheld them due to examinations of how he was sentenced in 1980.

Without judicial intervention, Russo argued in the appeal, Thomas would never be free from prison.

He cited several landmark U.S. and New Jersey supreme court cases, like Miller and Comer respectively, which consider juvenile sentencings.

The current appeals judges found those arguments persuasive, saying there is “seemingly no end to defendant’s imprisonment” and his constitutional rights “are not satisfied by periodic parole hearings” which do not apply relevant case law decisions.

Thomas, the court said, deserves a better arbiter, that a parole hearing is a “poor substitute” for a procedure that would give Thomas an adversarial setting his case needs. His case will now go in front of a judge in Superior Court of Atlantic County.

There, he can have a lawyer, present evidence that he’s tried to argue in prior court appeals, and cross examine any witness the state might produce, the decision says. That judge can then rule if Thomas should be freed in any way. The court took no position on that, and recognized the “horrific” crime he committed.

The appeals court, while critical of the parole process, said it was for this case only, due to its “heightened review” of the constitutionality of a juvenile offender who is now a model prisoner, and not be seen as a general finding that the parole process is deficient or unfair.

The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment about Thomas.

kshea@njadvancemedia.com

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