Supreme Court ruling means overhaul of juvenile cases
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About 11 months ago, Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Rita Hathaway prepared to sentence a 19-year-old woman who had been found guilty in the torture and killing of Jennifer Daugherty, a 30-year-old mentally disabled woman.
In the courtroom was the victim's family and an urn containing the ashes of the victim. Judge Hathaway assured Jennifer's family that one of the killers, Angela Marinucci, would never leave prison.
"Life is life," the judge said. "Ms. Marinucci will spend her life in prison."
Marinucci, who was 17 at the time of the crime, was found guilty of first-degree murder, a conviction that carried an automatic life sentence.
But Monday, in the landmark case Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders like Marinucci, calling the penalty "cruel and unusual" and a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Legal observers believe the decision will be retroactively applied, meaning Marinucci, whose attorney is already seeking a new trial, will be entitled to a resentencing hearing. She may still receive life, or she may have the opportunity to be paroled at some point.
The decision also offers hope for inmates like Jovon Knox, who was arrested at 17 for his participation in a botched carjacking on the North Side and is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder, even though prosecutors have conceded it was his twin brother, Devon, who pulled the trigger. His attorney, Thomas N. Farrell, said he was just "standing by."
Across the state, lawyers, judges, legislators and the families of both victims and inmates who may be affected by the case are bracing for the ripple effect of Miller v. Alabama.
The decision is likely to have a far-reaching impact here, because Pennsylvania has more inmates serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles than any other state, with about 470. But exactly how it will play out is unclear.
"The situation is complicated," said Marsha Levick, chief counsel for the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. "It's one that the state and the courts will have to adapt and adjust to because that's what the Supreme Court is now requiring."
To comply with the court's decision, the state will have to create new laws to deal with a class of juvenile offenders who previously would have faced automatic life sentences.
In Allegheny County alone, 11 juveniles are awaiting trial on homicide charges in which first- or second-degree murder convictions previously would have resulted in mandatory life sentences.
Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney's office, said the office has not been offered guidance on how to proceed in these cases. Nonetheless, it has started to alert victims' families who may be impacted by the high court's decision.
State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said hearings on new sentencing laws will begin the week of July 9.
"The court didn't give us any direction in that regard. It just told us what we can't do," he said.
In the meantime, families impacted by these crimes have been thrown on edge.
Joy Burkholder, Ms. Daugherty's sister, said the possibility that Marinucci could someday be freed resurrected feelings of grief.
"It's scary ... it's something that weighs heavy in my mind because it's a possibility," she said. "Knowing that she was going to be in jail for the rest of her life was the best we could hope for."
For Trent Hereford, whose son Isaiah was 17 when he was charged with killing three people in a robbery gone awry in McKeesport, it provides a glimmer of hope. Mr. Hereford believes his son, who was convicted of three counts of second-degree murder, is innocent.
"Numbers is better than life. We can work with numbers," he said. "I'm trying to save my son's life."
The high court did not outlaw life without the possibility of parole for juveniles, but struck down mandatory minimum sentencing laws that made the penalty automatic for young offenders.
However, the justices went further, saying that the lifelong penalty should be imposed only on juveniles in "uncommon" circumstances and only after careful consideration of several factors, including the offender's background and the nature of the offense.
This means that courts across the country with mandatory life sentencing laws will have to fashion special post-conviction hearings for juveniles during which they can offer testimony to help the judge shape their sentence.
It will likely mirror the structure of a death penalty case, where a separate phase deals specifically with how the offender should be punished, legal experts say.
"We require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority opinion.
But in the meantime, judges handling such cases are left in a statutory no-man's land. There are no guidelines for how to run a penalty phase for a juvenile offender.
Under state law, the only option judges have when faced with sentencing those convicted of first- or second-degree homicide is life without parole. Any other sentence a judge would impose would be outside of the law as it currently stands.
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Cashman, who is not currently handling any juveniles charged with homicide, said he has not received any guidance on how to handle such a dilemma.
But he said he would likely run a penalty phase in the model of those for death penalty cases. If he determined a juvenile should not receive a life sentence, he would impose a sentence of life with parole, even though that sentence currently does not exist under state law.
The parole board also does not have the authority to review the sentences of those convicted of first- or second-degree murder, another statutory stumbling block.
Having judges fashion their own ways of complying with the decision is "dangerous," said Bruce Antkowiak, a former prosecutor and law professor at Saint Vincent College.
"That in essence is an unguided exercise of discretion," he said, that would likely be challenged by the defendant on appeal.
The prospect is similarly muddy for those already serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. All were sentenced under the mandatory sentencing requirement.
Legal experts predict that the state courts or the Legislature will declare the Miller decision retroactive, meaning either body will have to determine how to address the issues the high court raised for all 470, some of whom were convicted decades ago.
For victims' families, it will likely mean having to return to court.
Hundreds of these inmates already have appeals in the system, and several attorneys have argued that their life sentences are unconstitutional based on previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Several in the state Superior Court were put on hold pending the outcome of Miller, said Superior Court President Judge Correale F. Stevens.
"The bottom line is there's still a lot of questions that the Superior Court needs to answer internally on procedure," he said.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which is set to decide another case on the constitutionality of life sentences for juveniles, could also offer counsel.
It was awaiting the outcome of the Miller case to decide the case of Qu'eed Batts, a Northhampton County man who was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting another teenager when he was 14.
But judges, prosecutors, lawyers and advocates are mostly looking to the Legislature to help the state comply with the new decision.
"Almost everywhere you go down on this, you come back to the question of the Legislature needing to act," said Mr. Antkowiak.
Regardless of what the Legislature does, Ms. Levick said the decision will offer juvenile offenders better options than they had before by allowing judges to sentence them to something less than life without parole.
"The decision is about requiring the courts to look at each offender individually and determine appropriate sentence," she said.
First Published July 1, 2012 12:00 am