Two weeks ago, in a regal, courtroom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices pondered a set of complex legal questions before a standing-room-only crowd. They heard two cases that will shape how the state handles juvenile offenders serving mandatory life sentences, in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that struck down lifetime sentences for minors.
Was Miller v. Alabama a watershed case or a procedural one? Was the creation of a life-with-parole sentence tantamount to legislating?
But 21-year-old Ashley Carney, whose eyes were trained on the justices from a seat in the gallery, had just one question: When will my uncle come home?
Eugene Carney has been incarcerated for 31 years, convicted for his role in what prosecutors described as a gang-motivated drive-by shooting in Philadelphia when he was 17. Ashley Carney has only known him behind bars, but says he treats her like a daughter, helping her with homework through letters, checking in on her frequently to make sure she stays out of trouble.
"When I [was in] the courtroom, I just be hoping that they come up with some type of decision to bring justice to everybody ... and that they come up with a decision, like, fast," she said. "Because I just turned 21 and he missed 21 birthdays of mine. So I wouldn't want to turn 22, 23, 24 without him being around because it's time for him to come home."
The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center estimates there are about 470 inmates like Carney who are serving life sentences for crimes they committed before their 18th birthday, a penalty that's now unconstitutional following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama in June. That's more than any state in the nation.
Pennsylvania faces perhaps the most complicated and difficult challenge, with so many cases at stake and with an inflexible sentencing scheme that seems, at times, unworkable. As the first state to take up the issue in its high court and because of the volume of cases, it's being watched nationally.
"There's no question that Pennsylvania is a significant center of attention. ... It has been for some time because of the overwhelming numbers there," said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project. What happens in the state, he said, could be a harbinger for how the issue plays out in other states.
In Pennsylvania, progress in complying with the U.S. Supreme Court's new mandate has picked up pace. The state's high court expedited the two cases heard earlier this month, which will determine how the courts will handle the hundreds of inmates who have petitioned for re-sentencing under the Miller decision, holding out distant hope that they may someday be released.
And a legislative amendment to be introduced this week by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, would significantly lessen sentences for certain young offenders convicted of murder, and remove provisions of state law that mandate life sentences for juveniles convicted of first- or second-degree murder. It's not clear how the law would apply to those already imprisoned.
Across the nation, more than two dozen states are facing the same challenge Pennsylvania faces with mandatory sentencing laws on the books that will need to be reconsidered in light of the Miller decision. But the reaction has been scattershot. In some states, there's been little or no action taken. In others, response was swift.
But in the meantime, here and elsewhere, uncertainty has left families of victims and of inmates in a lurch. Defense attorneys, too, say they're in a bind when advising young defendants facing trial for homicide. Depending on how the state Supreme Court rules in the two cases, hundreds of appeals filed by inmates who have already served significant time could be halted.
"If you're in prison for life and you were sentenced as a juvenile, it gives [you] hope," said attorney Tom Farrell, who is representing several inmates from Allegheny County challenging their life sentences. "Whether it's false hope, we don't know."
Those who lost relatives to murders committed by juveniles are similarly anxious that those serving life sentences would have an opportunity to be released at some point. Among them is Gwendolyn Hawkins of Perry South, whose son, Randy, 23, was killed in 1994 by Scott Walker. Walker, 15 at the time of the killing, was convicted of first-degree murder and is appealing his life sentence
"It would break my heart if he got free to walk the streets again," said Ms. Hawkins.
There are 27 states with mandatory sentencing laws that will have to be addressed because of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Miller case.
In Iowa, the wrangling over how to handle the 38 juvenile offenders serving life began just a week after the Supreme Court announced their decision in Miller, when Gov. Terry Branstad commuted their sentences to life with parole after 60 years.
"Justice is a balance and these commutations ensure that justice is balanced with punishment for those vicious crimes and taking into account public safety," Mr. Branstad said in a news release.
It's a decision contested by attorneys like Gregory Allen, who say it is tantamount to a life sentence, as the number of years a teenaged offender would be expected to serve exceeds the average life expectancy. Mr. Allen is representing a woman who was convicted of first-degree murder after her boyfriend killed a family friend and she helped conceal the crime when she was 17. Under the governor's order, she would not be eligible for parole until she's at least 77.
"I think its pretty uniform that most of us believe that it's illegal and can't be done," Mr. Allen said of the governor's actions.
In North Carolina, a bill was recently passed to allow courts to impose a sentence of life with parole eligibility after 25 years. The sentence of life without parole is also an option, but can only be imposed after a special hearing in which a juvenile's age, maturity, mental health status and other aspects are weighed.
Similarly, in Pennsylvania, an amendment to a juvenile justice bill that's been proposed by Rep. Marsico would significantly shorten sentences for some youths convicted of first- or second-degree murder. Under current state law, anyone convicted of those two crimes receives a mandatory minimum of life without the possibility of parole.
Under Rep. Marsico's proposal, judges or juries could still impose a life without parole sentence for anyone convicted of first-degree murder. But they would also have the option of imposing a sentence of 35 years to life for a juvenile 15 or older, or 25 to life for younger defendants, giving them the opportunity to be paroled at some point.
The proposal also eliminates the life without parole sentence for juveniles found guilty of second-degree murder. Those between the ages of 15 and 17 would serve a minimum of 30 years to life. Younger offenders would serve a minimum of 20 years to life.
The bill was proposed with the hope that it would become law before the expiration of the legislative session this year to address the uncertainty created by Miller for juveniles currently facing trial on homicide charges. In Allegheny County alone, about 10 juveniles face trial on homicide charges.
The legislation is intended to bring the state into compliance with the Supreme Court's decision, not to reform the juvenile justice system. The legislation was shaped by input from numerous stakeholders who represented families of victims, inmates serving life, police and prosecutors who met three times as part of a working group and represents a compromise of sorts. But it's garnered a mix of reactions.
The Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association voiced its support for the legislation, saying it "represents a good balance between an appropriate punishment for juveniles convicted with murder and the Miller decision," said Greg Rowe, the legislative liaison for the association.
But Andy Hoover of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union feared that judges would still regularly impose life without parole sentences, even though the U.S. Supreme Court said that punishment should only be rarely given. That, he said, would violate the spirit of the Miller decision, even though it is technically constitutional.
"We think that there should be more flexibility for the sentencing court and that life without parole should be eliminated," he said.
Marsha Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center, called the amendment "monumental," but echoed Mr. Hoover's comments. She worried the state was rushing into a quick fix to comply with the high court's decision, rather than carefully reconsidering the way it treats juveniles who commit serious crimes. "This is probably the first significant change in sentencing law in a century," she said. "I think the Legislature should take some time to consider what the alternatives are."
It's still far from clear whether Scott Walker, the man who as a 15-year-old rode a bike to retrieve the gun to shoot Randy Hawkins, will ever have a chance at parole or will ever see life outside of prison. He has petitioned to be resentenced, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has yet to rule whether the ban on life sentences applies to him.
But the possibility weighs heavily on Ms. Hawkins. She doesn't believe Walker, who shot her son in the back as he was walking to a water fountain, deserves a break because he was young or because he may have been influenced by others.
"I don't think that he deserves a second chance," she said. "Nobody can tell me because he served 17 years for killing my son [that he] has changed."
Moriah Balingit: email@example.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.