By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - New Jersey's highest court on Thursday ordered the resentencing of a convicted murderer serving a 60-year prison term for a shooting during a Trenton robbery, after his trial judge said he "always" imposes sentences at least that long in similar cases.
The state Supreme Court ruled 6-0 that Patrick McFarlane must be resentenced by a new judge because the comment by Mercer County Judge Robert Billmeier, made in an unrelated murder case, "undermined" public confidence in criminal sentencings.
McFarlane, 27, was sentenced in September 2013 after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder in the May 2008 death of Richard Mason, who was shot in the back while being chased from a dice game that the defendant had disrupted.
At a January 2015 hearing in the unrelated murder case, Billmeier said: "I always give defendants convicted by a jury a minimum of 60 years," subject to a state law governing early release, "and you can check my record."
The judge later called his comment "improper," but said he did not predetermine sentences in such cases.
McFarlane's appeal focused on the comment, and three other 60-year sentences the judge imposed for first-degree murder.
An intermediate state appeals court upheld McFarlane's sentence last April.
Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Lee Solomon said, however, that judges must consider the "unique facts" of each case when imposing sentences.
Billmeier's comment, "particularly when viewed in light of the trial judge's sentencing record, undermines public confidence in our system of criminal sentencing," Solomon wrote.
A spokeswoman for Angelo Onofri, the acting Mercer County prosecutor, declined to comment. The county's Office of the Public Defender had no one available to comment.
Alexander Shalom, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey who argued on McFarlane's behalf, welcomed the decision but said it should have gone farther.
"The court condemned the trial judge for what he said, but missed an opportunity to condemn what he said he would do - give harsher punishments to defendants who go to trial and lose," he said in an interview. "This is a widespread practice that requires explicit condemnation from the court."
Billmeier was not immediately available for comment, his chambers said.
The case is New Jersey v McFarlane, New Jersey Supreme Court, No. A-7-15.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio and Peter Cooney)