Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hear cases of minors sentenced to life without parole

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments over whether the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Miller v. Alabama -- banning mandatory life sentences without parole for minors -- applies retroactively to a Pennsylvania prisoner who has otherwise exhausted his appeals.

The court has agreed to hear on an expedited basis the case of Commonwealth v. Cunningham, involving the 1999 arrest of Ian Cunningham, who was 17 when he was charged with murder and robbery. He was convicted of those crimes in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison. Cunningham, now 30, has been permanently placed in SCI Huntingdon state prison.

Cunningham's appeal request has been pending for some time. According to the docket in the case, the court reserved judgment on the petition for appeal in October 2009 until it ruled in Commonwealth v. Batts.

The Batts case was also on hold, however, while the court awaited the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller, which came down in June.

Last month -- nearly three years after granting allocatur, or appeal allowance, in the case -- the Pennsylvania Supreme Court scheduled Batts for oral argument. The court will hear arguments in the Batts and Cunningham cases in Philadelphia in September.

The question taken up on appeal in the Cunningham case is whether the trial court erred in imposing a life sentence without parole for the crime of second-degree murder. The Supreme Court directed the parties to address whether the U.S. Supreme Court's June ruling in Miller retroactively applies to an inmate serving such a sentence when he or she has exhausted his or her direct appeal rights and is proceeding under the Post Conviction Relief Act.

The court further ordered the parties in the Cunningham case to address what, if Miller does have retroactive effect, the appropriate remedy under the Post Conviction Relief Act is for a defendant sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a murder committed when the defendant was under the age of 18.

Hugh J. Burns Jr. of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office is representing the office in the Cunningham case. He said that in a case like Batts, where the case is at the direct appeal stage and the issue of the constitutionality of the sentence was properly raised on appeal, the Miller ruling may allow for resentencing.

But Mr. Burns pointed out that Miller doesn't ban life sentences without the possibility for parole for those who committed crimes when under the age of 18. It simply bans the mandatory nature of such sentences, he said.

A judge at resentencing may look at the individual facts of the case and reimpose the same life sentence without parole, or perhaps a sentence with the possibility of parole, Mr. Burns said.

In a case like Cunningham, where Mr. Burns said the constitutionality of the sentence was first raised at the PCRA stage, the state will argue that the Miller case does not apply retroactively.

John P. Cotter of Cotter & Miller is representing Cunningham and didn't return a call for comment.

Batts and Cunningham won't be the first time since Miller that a Pennsylvania court has had to address the issue of minors sentenced to life without parole.

In mid-July, the state Superior Court ruled in two separate but consolidated cases that Pennsylvania juveniles may not face mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole, finding the practice unconstitutional as a violation of Eighth Amendment rights.

The two cases, referred to as Commonwealth v. Knox, involved the prosecutions of twin brothers for a 2007 murder.

"Because Pennsylvania's sentencing scheme mandates life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of second-degree murder, it is clearly unconstitutional under Miller," Judge Jacqueline O. Shogan wrote in one opinion.

The court remanded both cases for resentencing, extending the invitation to both parties and any respective amicus filers on how to resentence the convicts.


Gina Passarella: or 215-557-2494. To read more articles like this, visit


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