Pa. top court retains terms for juvenile lifers

State top court says Miller decision not applicable to youths previously convicted

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision known as Miller v. Alabama, found that mandatory prison terms of life without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional.

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in a split decision, said that opinion does not apply to those offenders already serving their sentences.

That means that about 500 prisoners in Pennsylvania, who had hoped they could be resentenced under the U.S. Supreme Court decision, cannot.

Experts believe that the issue of whether Miller should apply retroactively will eventually return to the U.S. Supreme Court for ultimate resolution.

"The sad thing, to me, is that will take time," said Sara Jacobson, a Temple University law professor who has worked with the defense on this issue. "There are people who will die in jail before that clarification is made."

Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any other state. In Allegheny County, there are 48.

The case at issue, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Ian Cunningham, was argued before the court in 2012.

Cunningham, who was 17 at the time of the crime, was convicted of second-degree murder and robbery in Philadelphia in 2002. He is serving life without parole and argued to the state Supreme Court in September 2012 that the Miller decision -- issued by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier that year -- should apply to juveniles previously convicted.

The question decided by the court was whether the Miller decision was a procedural change in the law -- which means it would not apply retroactively -- or substantive, which means that it would.

The 17-page opinion, written by Justice Thomas G. Saylor and joined by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, and Justices J. Michael Eakin and Correale Stevens, finds that Miller is only procedural.

The Miller decision, Justice Saylor wrote, does not preclude life without parole for juveniles. Instead, it simply sets out a new sentencing procedure to determine if such a penalty is appropriate. Among the changes, a sentencing judge must consider a juvenile's age, level of maturity, family and home environment, the extent of participation in the crime, the impact of family and peer pressure and the possibility of rehabilitation before handing down punishment.

The commonwealth, which argued against retroactivity in the Cunningham case, said that makes the Miller decision only a procedural change.

"It is the Commonwealth's core position that appellant's claim must be decided under the law as it stood at the time his conviction became final in 2005," Justice Saylor wrote.

Attorneys for Cunningham argued that "once a new rule is applied to the defendant in the case announcing the rule, evenhanded justice requires that it be applied retroactively to all who are similarly situated."

The court disagreed.

But in a concurring opinion, Justice Castille addressed what he called the "seeming inequity" resulting from Miller.

"The 'seeming inequity' here arises from the fact that the prospect of an individualized, discretionary judicial determination of whether a juvenile murderer should ever be afforded parole eligibility depends solely upon the happenstance of the moment that the defendant's conviction became final."

He speaks strongly against the U.S. Supreme Court, saying that it failed to address retroactivity in the Miller opinion.

The chief justice went on to say that perhaps the Pennsylvania General Assembly -- which acted quickly after Miller, setting new mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles convicted of murder based on the age of the offender -- should address the issue.

"Presumably, the General Assembly has the power to revise the applicable statutory provisions related to parole, without affecting the underlying judicial judgments in these cases. Miller's concern was not with sentences of [life without parole] for juveniles per se, but rather with the absolute, mandatory unavailability of parole irrespective of individualized circumstances that the high court deemed relevant for juvenile offenders," he wrote.

The restriction of parole in Pennsylvania for those convicted of first- or second-degree murder stems from the parole code, Justice Castille continued, which could be revised.

Several states, including Iowa, Mississippi and Illinois, have found Miller to be retroactive, while others, like Minnesota, Michigan and Florida, have said it is not.

"This is an important decision affecting lots of people in critical ways," said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff.

"I truly doubt that this will be the last word on the matter. I think that the U.S. Supreme Court will want to weigh in on this issue, and that there's every chance that this decision will be reversed."

In a dissenting opinion, written by Justice Max Baer and joined by Justices Debra Todd and Seamus McCaffery, the minority wrote that the changes made by Miller are substantive and therefore should apply retroactively. Justice Baer based that decision, he said, in recognition of the U.S. Supreme Court's belief that "children are constitutionally different."

He continues that his dissent "should not be interpreted as a suggestion that life without parole should not be imposed on this appellant or any other juvenile murderer.

"However, the decision should be, at least in this instance, in the discretion of a trial judge observing the facts of the case and the characteristics of the defendant to determine whether life without parole is appropriate. Moreover, the ultimate decision of whether to release the juvenile on parole, if awarded, will rest with the parole board."

Ms. Jacobson said there will be a meeting next week to determine how to proceed with a possible appeal in the Cunningham case.

Paula Reed Ward:

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?