Pennsylvania juvenile sentencing law raises questions

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In October, the state Legislature responded to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Miller v. Alabama, in which the nation's high court ruled it was unconstitutional to impose a mandatory life sentence without parole for juvenile offenders.

With Act 204 of 2012, signed into law Oct. 25 by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, the Legislature brought the state into compliance with the ruling.

But the law applies to convictions that occurred after June 24, the day before the Miller ruling came down.

That's why, in the recent case of Commonwealth v. Lofton, the state Superior Court said the law as written could not broadly apply to every case. In so holding, the three-judge panel remanded the matter to the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court for resentencing.

"The Legislature failed to contemplate that it is long-standing precedent that persons are generally entitled to the retroactive applicability of decisions when they are pursuing an identical issue on direct appeal," Judge Mary Jane Bowes wrote for the unanimous panel.

"Thus, juveniles convicted before June 24, 2012, but who are on direct appeal, may be entitled to resentencing despite the Legislature's failure to adequately address such juveniles."

The Superior Court's Dec. 7 ruling in the Lofton case suggests that while the Legislature may have provided guidance, the legal system is not fully out of the post-Miller weeds.

In Lofton, Kevin Lofton had preserved both federal and state constitutional issues on appeal. He argued his sentence of life without parole for a second-degree murder and other convictions violated his rights to due process, equal protection and those against cruel and unusual punishment.

According to the opinion, the state conceded the point that he was entitled to resentencing.

However, the Superior Court declined to elaborate on a court's protocol when a prisoner who was sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile did not preserve the issue on direct appeal, saying in a footnote the issue "must be left for another day."

After the Miller ruling came down, but before the Legislature passed the act, attorneys said Pennsylvania courtrooms were facing a possible avalanche of litigation from juveniles serving life sentences who had not preserved these issues.

Matthew T. Mangino, the former district attorney of Lawrence County, said the opinion from the Superior Court in Lofton was not surprising and applied to only the narrow set of cases where the issue was preserved.

"You can't just say 'from this point forward, this is how we're going to resentence juveniles convicted of first-degree murder,' " Mr. Mangino said, referring to the Superior Court's analysis of the new law.

For juveniles convicted of first- or second-degree murder going forward, however, sentencing will be guided by the new law, which considers a host of factors the U.S. Supreme Court outlined in Miller.

legalnews

Ben Present: bpresent@alm.com or 215-557-2315. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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