Young Pennsylvania cons ask to revisit cases
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As Pennsylvania grapples with how to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision banning mandatory life sentences for juveniles, Blanche Walker said she continues to pray every day that she'll see her son Scott, 33, who is serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a man when he was 15, go free before she dies.
"He always says, 'I want to get out and take care of you, Mom,' " said Ms. Walker, who is suffering from diabetes and kidney failure. "I hope to God he can come back."
Bobbi Jamriska, whose 15-year-old pregnant half-sister Kristina Grill was stabbed to death in 1993, said she relives the grief every day, anxious at the thought that Kristina's killer, Maurice Bailey, who was convicted when he was 16, may someday be free.
Scott Walker and Maurice Bailey are among nine inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles who filed petitions last week with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, asking the court to re-examine their sentences in light of the Supreme Court's June 25 ruling. Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any other state in the nation -- an estimated 480, all of whom could file a similar petition.
Meanwhile, across the state in Harrisburg on Thursday, state legislators gathered to hear testimony from those who may be affected by the Supreme Court decision -- Miller v. Alabama -- and their proxies. Ms. Jamriska was among those who spoke.
"Obviously there's some urgency to us to resolve this issue," said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Supreme Court deemed mandatory sentences for juveniles "cruel and unusual," he noted, "but they don't tell us then what to do."
The petitions filed last week in Allegheny County underscored that urgency. But there are also at least 11 juveniles awaiting trial on homicide charges that might have previously netted a mandatory life sentence. The courts have yet to figure out how to deal with those cases, but many have said the final answer will have to come not from the courts, but from the Legislature.
"The Legislature's dealing with this problem cannot be avoided, nor delayed," former Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernest D. Preate testified Thursday. He noted that if the Legislature is sluggish, it may inadvertently violate the right to a speedy trial for juveniles awaiting trial or sentencing for homicide charges.
"The need for immediate and forthwith action by the Legislature becomes obvious. ... Huge gaps would exist in our statute on sentencing of juveniles" convicted of first- or second-degree murder, he said.
The high court's decision, while it did not universally ban life sentences for juveniles, mandated that judges consider a number of factors, including the defendant's background, blameworthiness, amenability to rehabilitation and maturity before giving the penalty.
Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, testified at Thursday's hearing and suggested that the state create a "bifurcated process" with a hearing separate from the trial to consider these factors.
Lourdes Rosado, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, testified at the hearing that the state should create an entirely new sentencing scheme for those who committed their crimes under age 18 that is less punitive, with no juvenile defendant receiving more than 40 years in prison. Currently, the mandatory minimum sentence for anyone convicted of first- or second-degree murder is life without parole.
"Juveniles convicted of murder are different from others sentenced to life terms because they are not fully formed adults at the time of the killing," she said. "In the same way that we treat children differently in many other areas of the law because they are still developing, sentencing policy should allow for the possibility of rehabilitation."
But Ms. Jamriska testified that she hoped judges would also weigh the impact on victims' families. When Bailey was sentenced to life without parole in 1994 for stabbing Kristina to death, Ms. Jamriska said she got peace of mind knowing he would be locked up forever. Now, if he's made eligible for parole, it means she may have to deliver testimony annually to see that he stays in jail.
"The one thing I took away from what happened is that I would never have to think about or deal with this again," she said. "And now I face the prospect of one of two things: either running into him at the grocery store at one point or dredging this up every year for the rest of my life to try to keep him in jail."
Ms. Jamriska testified Thursday about her concern that families of victims would not be kept abreast of developments in the cases. It was a concern that was confirmed last week, when she learned through a reporter that Bailey was seeking re-sentencing.
"I beg this committee to find a way to incorporate victims," she said. "The victims in these cases have moved on, expecting the closure the justice system promised them to stand. For every one of me ... there are probably several more families who have no idea that these killers could go free."
She also urged the committee to include the voice of victims when fashioning the new process to weigh how juvenile defendants should be sentenced.
Ms. Walker, who embraced the mother of the man her son shot at the close of the trial, said she believes her son has paid for his crime. He's deeply remorseful, she said.
"He always said 'I want to be punished for what I did,' " she said. "He didn't know it would be life without parole."
First Published July 16, 2012 12:00 am