Zappala says Supreme Court ruling on juveniles lacks guidelines
January 30, 2016 12:16 AM
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. wants some guidance on how to address the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week that made retroactive a prior decision making mandatory life prison terms for juveniles unconstitutional.
In Allegheny County, 37 defendants could qualify for relief under Montgomery v. Louisiana, but the decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, failed to lay out exactly what process ought to be used, Mr. Zappala said. The opinion referred to the concept of resentencing offenders as well as allowing them to proceed through parole.
But in Pennsylvania, the law does not allow anyone serving a life sentence to qualify for parole, and therefore, Mr. Zappala said, there is no mechanism in place for juvenile lifers to request it.
That, he said, means that the defendants from Allegheny County would have to be resentenced — an idea the prosecutor vehemently opposes.
“I’m not putting survivors of the victims through a hearing,” Mr. Zappala said. “I’m not going to permit that to happen.”
Instead, he believes the state Legislature needs to take up the issue by rewriting the law and allowing those defendants to apply for parole.
“I believe this is now a legislative matter,” he said. “Now that the Supreme Court has decided this, the Legislature has to act.”
In 2012, within four months of the Miller v. Alabama decision that outlawed mandatory juvenile life sentences, the Pennsylvania Legislature rewrote the sentencing statute. Those convicted of first-degree murder after Miller became law who were at least age 15 would face a minimum prison term of 35 years to life; those younger than 15 faced a minimum of 25 years to life.
But Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, does not think rewriting the law — whether the sentencing structure or the parole act — is necessary.
“It’s really not in the Legislature’s lap right now,” he said.
What the Montgomery decision did, he continued, is make Miller retroactive — which means that the sentences now being served by juvenile lifers are “illegal and null and void.”
That, Mr. Greenleaf continued, requires they be given a new sentencing hearing.
If the Legislature does not take action, Mr. Zappala said, another alternative is for his office to ask for King’s Bench review from the state Supreme Court and ask that it impose a framework for counties to follow in addressing the resentencings.
“I want to address all 37 cases at the same time,” Mr. Zappala said. “I don’t want to address them piecemeal. This isn’t about delaying the proceedings. This is about getting it right the first time.”
Mr. Greenleaf said the state Supreme Court should decide what process is used.
“The [Montgomery opinion] didn’t answer all the questions of procedure, but they obviously suggested that juveniles be given an opportunity to present evidence, and it’s up to the court to impose the sentence.”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court opinion on Monday, three defendants in Allegheny County have filed petitions seeking relief.
“We need some direction — either from the courts or from the Legislature,” Mr. Zappala said. “We’re not going to let this languish.”
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