Nearly 500 teens serving life terms in Pa. prisons
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Pennsylvania leads the nation in teen lifers -- prisoners serving life without parole for crimes they committed as minors -- and last week legislators met to examine the issue for the first time.
In a courtroom in Pittsburgh, 18-year-old twins Devon and Jovon Knox faced exactly that fate -- life without parole -- for killing 18-year-old Jehru Donaldson in a botched car-jacking in July 2007, when they were 17.
They join the 444 teen lifers currently held in Pennsylvania prisons, which is about a fifth of the nation's total and 110 more than runner-up Louisiana, according to a May 2008 report by Human Rights Watch.
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and called the hearing, said he was startled to learn that Pennsylvania held the No. 1 spot and that the United States is the only country in the world that regularly imprisons youths for life.
"That got my attention," he said. "I felt a responsibility to look at [the issue] ... which is why we held the hearing."
Some states have considered laws that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles or that would eliminate the penalty altogether. Five states and Washington, D.C., prohibit the practice altogether.
Last year in Pennsylvania, nine people were sentenced to life for crimes they committed as minors. Today, 10 people in Allegheny County await trial for crimes they committed as minors and could wind up in prison for life. (First- and second-degree murder are the only crimes that result in a minor being sentenced to life in prison.)
The issue has been polarizing, with human rights activists arguing that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison is excessively harsh and some victims advocates arguing that those who commit homicide should spend the rest of their lives in prison, regardless of their age.
Still, it's the number -- 444 -- that troubles some.
"It could be a commentary on Pennsylvania law ... it could also be a commentary on society," said Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, who heads the county's Family Division and has adjudicated some juvenile homicide cases. "It makes me very sad."
Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch, which published the report that got Mr. Greenleaf's attention, said a major contributing factor is the rigidity of Pennsylvania law, which requires anyone charged with homicide, regardless of age, to be tried as an adult and has a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole for first- and second-degree murder.
She called it "a double whammy for a kid, without any review."
In Pennsylvania, first-degree murder is defined as an intentional killing, generally premeditated; second-degree murder is any homicide that occurs during the commission of a felony.
Pennsylvania may be the only state that has a mandatory sentence of life without parole for both first- and second-degree murder, said James Fellman, a Tampa, Fla.-based attorney and the chairman of the American Bar Association's Commission on Sentencing.
"It makes no sense at all," he said. "That's why there's degrees of murder. There needs to be different sentences for different crimes."
Experts say that the exclusion rule, which requires anyone charged with murder to be tried as an adult, also contributes to Pennsylvania's number. Minors have the opportunity to have their cases transferred to juvenile court through a decertification hearing, but in homicide cases, such transfers are rare.
Ms. Calvin said many minors get convicted under felony murder rule, a type of second-degree murder conviction that holds all participants in a felony that results in murder responsible. Youths tend to act in groups, which makes them particularly susceptible to this charge.
In the case of the Knox twins, it was never determined which one fired the gun and killed Jehru Donaldson because the sole witness could not distinguish between the two, especially after the twins showed up to court in identical outfits and switched seats.
But the prosecution successfully argued that it did not matter, because both were involved in a felony that resulted in a death and both were convicted of felony murder. One twin, though he did not fire a weapon, will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Their father, Douglas Carey, maintains their innocence but said it is "unjust" that both his sons should be charged.
"How can you charge two people for one murder?" he said. "Basically what they're saying is that both my sons had their hand on the trigger."
But for Jay Donaldson, the father of the 18-year-old victim, the conviction was fair, because both could have predicted that an armed car-jacking could have resulted in someone's death.
"You're just as responsible because you didn't do anything to stop it ... for all intents and purposes you did it too," he said.
Many have challenged the fairness of the felony murder rule, because a person convicted does not have to be present or directly involved with the actual murder, only with the felony.
Even for those convicted of first-degree murder, critics say that a life without parole sentence is draconian for a minor.
A violent criminal act can be reflective of "extreme immaturity, but not one that would warrant treatment as adults," said Mr. Fellman of the American Bar Association.
This is why some states have banned it outright in favor of life sentences with the possibility of early release.
Mr. Greenleaf said that he has not come to any conclusions as to what Pennsylvania should do, if anything, to address the high number of people in prison for life for crimes they committed as minors.
In weighing options like early release for those currently serving life sentences and lighter mandatory minimum sentences, he said that the state must consider the impact on public safety, particularly how well the state can determine which of those convicted are sufficiently rehabilitated and which of those are likely to commit crimes again.
Mr. Donaldson said if the Knox twins were ever released he is certain that they would once again wreak havoc in the neighborhood. He said they were beyond hope for rehabilitation.
"They had so many chances to go the right way," he said, adding that they were in the same anti-violence program as his son.
But the punishment his son's killer faces does not make much of a difference, he said.
"It's not going to bring back my happiness, my joy," he said.
First Published September 29, 2008 12:00 am