Convicted killers appealing automatic life sentences

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PHILADELPHIA -- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court this morning heard oral arguments in the cases of two inmates who appealed life sentences they received for murders they committed as juveniles.

Their arguments came as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down mandatory life sentences for offenders under the age of 18.

The two cases are expected to shape how the state conforms with the U.S. Supreme Court's June ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles constituted "cruel and unusual punishment."

Pennsylvania currently has about 470 inmates serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed before their 18th birthday, more than any state in the nation.

In the case of Qu'eed Batts, who was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting another teen as a 14-year-old in Northampton County, the high court is being asked to craft other options for judges or juries faced with sentencing a juvenile convicted of first- or second-degree murder. Currently, the only sentence available for judges to impose in those cases is life without parole.

Batts' attorney, Marsha Levick, argued that the court should give judges the option of imposing the next most severe sentence of 20 to 40 years, which is mandatory for third-degree murder. But attorneys for the Commonwealth said the court should allow judges to impose life with parole and give them the discretion to choose the minimum term of years before the defendant becomes eligible for parole.

The court also heard arguments in the case of Ian Cunningham, convicted of second-degree murder for a crime he committed as a 17-year-old. In that case, the justices must decide if the Miller decision is retroactive.

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.


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