Filing delays appeal for Pa. inmate hoping Supreme Court ruling can free him

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Jeffrey Cristina's wait to get resentenced will continue.

The former Lawrenceville man who has spent the last 37 years in prison for second-degree murder had been hoping to get some relief from his life-without-parole sentence based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer that made unconstitutional mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles.

Cristina, 54, was scheduled to appear today before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Anthony M. Mariani on a post-conviction act appeal.

His attorney, Steve Townsend, planned to argue that his client should be released immediately. Since his incarceration, Cristina has never received a single misconduct and has taken advantage of various educational opportunities. In 1993, the state board of pardons unanimously recommended clemency, but it was denied by the governor.

But on Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Michael W. Streily filed a notice with the court that the prosecutor's office was appealing Judge Mariani's order granting Cristina's appeal petition.

By filing the notice of appeal, it stays the case before Judge Mariani, meaning Cristina will not have a hearing.

"We believe that there is a jurisdictional issue that needs to be resolved," said Mike Manko, a spokesman for the DA's office.

Mr. Townsend said he was frustrated by the delay.

"I understand their right to appeal," he said. "Obviously, if there wasn't an appeals process, Jeffrey wouldn't be in the position he is to be able to appeal his sentence."

Cristina was convicted of the Dec. 10, 1975, robbery and beating death of Frank Slazinski, an 82-year-old retired steelworker, who was attacked in his Butler Street apartment.

Cristina claimed he attempted to rob the man but fled before the beating. A jury found him guilty of second-degree, or felony, murder.

He filed his most recent appeal in August, citing the Miller v. Alabama decision.

Since that time, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has also taken on two cases related to juveniles serving life without parole.

The court issued its opinion on one of those, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Batts, last month. In that decision, the state Supreme Court found that juveniles who have not already exhausted their direct appeals must be sentenced to a minimum prison term, with a mandatory maximum of life in prison. In addition, the sentencing judge must consider certain personal factors -- like the juvenile's age, level of maturity, family life, impact of peer pressure and possibility of rehabilitation -- before setting punishment.

However, the court has not yet ruled in a companion case Pennsylvania v. Cunningham, which will determine whether the rule set by Miller will be retroactive and apply to all those who were sentenced as juveniles are now serving life.

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Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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