PORTLAND, OR (KPTV) – An Oregon man convicted in a brutal double murder case when he was 16 years old is going to get a chance to prove he’s a changed person.
Sterling Cunio is serving out his sentence of life in prison without parole. He was convicted in the 1994 killing of Bridget Camber, 18, and her fiancé Ian Dahl, 21.
Cunio and Wilford Hill approached the young couple outside an apartment in Salem and ordered the pair, at gunpoint, to get into Camber’s car. Cunio then drove the car down Interstate 5 to the Albany area. They stopped at a park near the Willamette River. Once there, Camber and Dahl were shot and killed. Cunio and Wilford took off.
Cunio is now 42 years old and spent more than two decades behind bars. Thursday, a federal judge in Portland ordered the State Parole Board to give Cunio an opportunity to show he’s a changed person.
“The court said that the constitution requires the state to give him a chance to show the progress he has made,” said Cunio’s attorney, Ryan O’Connor.
O’Connor has been on the case since 2012. In that time, he has been arguing that your brain isn’t fully developed in your teen years. He says you change over time and a person convicted and sentenced to life in prison as a minor should have the opportunity to prove they’ve been rehabilitated.
“A vast majority of kids who commit crimes, even murder, will become rehabilitated and be productive members of the community as they become adults,” O’Connor said.
In 2012, the Supreme Court found mandatory sentences for life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
In 2019, Oregon lawmakers changed youth sentencing guidelines that align with that ruling. The sticking point in Oregon’s legislation is the law only applied to cases moving forward, it did not work retroactively.
That’s why the ruling in federal court on Thursday is important for certain cases.
“What this federal court was saying to Oregon, to the state, give Sterling Cunio that chance now even though it is looking backwards. He deserves it anyway under the Supreme Court case law,” said Lewis & Clark law professor Aliza Kaplan.
Kaplan said decision will have an impact on a handful of cases. They have to meet several criteria to fall under the ruling.
For O’Connor, he says Cunio is a changed person now. He says Cunio is working on his degree, is an award-winning writer and helps with the prison hospice program.
“He is a totally different person and I think that any person who meets him and looks at the things he’s accomplished and meets with him can see that,” O’Connor said.
Camber’s family says they were not surprised by the federal ruling adding they are not out for revenge in the case. They say they just want Cunio to serve the sentence that was handed down in 1994. They say the court followed the state guidelines at the time.
A hearing for Cunio has not been scheduled before the Oregon State Parole Board.
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