Mandatory life sentences challenged by juvenile offenders
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PHILADELPHIA -- In 2006, when Qu'eed Batts was just 14, he killed one man and injured another in an act of violence that was meant to boost his status in a local gang, he told police, a crime for which he is now serving a mandatory life sentence.
Seven years prior, Ian Cunningham, then 17, killed a man during a robbery in Philadelphia. Convicted of second-degree murder and robbery, he, too, is serving a mandatory life sentence.
But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama mandatory life sentences for juveniles to be unconstitutional, opening the door for both men to appeal their sentences. Pennsylvania, which leads the nation in the number of juvenile offenders incarcerated for life with about 470, saw a flood of similar appeals, including more than 40 in Allegheny County alone.
And while the high court decisively struck down the penalty, it left myriad other questions to be answered by the states, including, most critically, if and how the decision applies to juvenile offenders already serving mandatory life sentences -- offenders like Cunningham and Batts.
Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard arguments in appeals from both men, who are challenging their sentences. The ruling that results from the case is expected to shape how the state falls into line with the high court's decision and could radically alter the fates of those serving life without parole for crimes they committed before their 18th birthdays.
"This is a very challenging dilemma for the court," said Marsha Levick of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, who is representing Batts. "Pennsylvania is in a bind."
Prosecutors insist that the Miller v. Alabama decision should not retroactively apply to defendants like Cunningham, who has challenged his sentence under a collateral appeal -- an appeal filed with the original court, often after new information has arisen in a case. He had exhausted his direct appeals to a higher court -- long before the mandatory life sentences were struck down. Ms. Levick estimated most of the juvenile offenders serving life have already exhausted their direct appeals.
Prosecutors are not challenging Batts' argument because he had been pursuing a direct appeal of his sentence at the time of the U.S. Supreme Court decision. Prosecutors have distinguished their treatment of the defendants based on precedent.
Cunningham's attorney, Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, argued that the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in the Miller decision that they intended for it to be retroactive and apply to all juvenile offenders serving life sentences. In that case, the high court struck down mandatory life sentences for two juvenile offenders, one of whom was on collateral appeal.
But Hugh Burns, of the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, believed that the court's ruling failed to meet the standards cases must reach to be considered retroactive. It was not a "watershed" case, he said, nor did it ban a specific sentence, only the manner in which that sentence was implemented -- mandatory.
There is already consensus that Batts is serving a life sentence that was rendered unconstitutional under the high court's new ruling. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is tasked with sorting how the state should comply with the new mandate. In other words, if Batts will not serve life, then what?
Ms. Levick argued that short of writing a new law, the high court's only option was to impose the next-most-severe sentence that already exists in state law. That's 20 to 40 years, the sentence for third-degree murder.
"This is a difficult position you've been put in to sort out what's absent in the legislation," she said. "I suggest that the only option you have is third degree."
Justice Seamus P. McCaffrey challenged the proposal, suggesting that parole eligibility after 20 years was not enough time.
"20 to 40 years? So I get a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old murderer who could be back on the streets in his mid-30s? Is that what you're saying?" he said.
Prosecutors shot back with their own proposal: that the court allow judges to impose either life without parole or life with parole. The latter sentence does not exist in the law, but Mr. Burns argued the court could simply strike down a statute that keeps the parole board from reviewing the cases of those serving life. Judges would then be given the discretion to set a minimum term.
Justice Michael Eakin challenged the proposal, questioning where judges got the authority to set minimum terms of life with parole sentences.
"There's nothing that prohibits it," said Terence P. Houck of the Northampton County District Attorney's office.
Ms. Levick countered that this was tantamount to legislating -- and not the role of the court. Mr. Houck said the same of Ms. Levick's proposal.
Mr. Bridge acknowledged that the solution was imperfect, "bad" even. But, he said, "the commonwealth solution is the worst solution."
Among those in the crowd were a handful of relatives of juvenile offenders serving life without parole, for whom the cases -- despite all their complicated legal jargon -- provide a visceral sense of hope that their loved one may someday be released.
Khadijah Ashley-Shaff is a Philadelphia counselor whose friend Eugene Carney has served nearly four decades for a second-degree murder convictions.
"He's going to be a part of society if God gives him a life out there. ... I know he's going to do fantastic things out here," she said. "He's got a big loving family who's waiting for him here."
First Published September 13, 2012 12:00 am