Two cases offer chances for change outside the legislature
Pennsylvania Law Weekly
April 12, 2011
Pennsylvania has an estimated 472 offenders serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for murders they committed as juveniles.
The number is so large that nearly 20 percent of the country's "juvenile lifers" reside in Pennsylvania, leaving the state at ground zero in the debate about whether killers who committed their offense while under the age of 18 should serve their entire life behind bars.
There are two cases that have sharpened the focus on Pennsylvania and how the state will deal with youthful offenders convicted of first- or second-degree murder.
The first is the case of Qu'eed Batts, who was convicted of a murder he committed while 14. Batts was tried in Northampton County Common Pleas Court at age 16 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Batts case is currently pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The second is the case of Jordan Brown, a Lawrence County boy who, at age 11, allegedly shot and killed his father's pregnant girlfriend while she slept. His case has been remanded to the county court for a new decertification hearing.
In order to fully appreciate the significance of both cases, a look at the recent treatment of juvenile offenders by the U.S. Supreme Court is instructive.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court found in Roper v. Simmons that a national consensus had developed against the execution of juveniles and struck down the procedure as a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment.
Christopher Simmons was one of 79 people sitting on death row nationwide for murders they committed as juveniles. In 1993, at age 17, Simmons broke into the home of Shirley Crook. Simmons, along with an accomplice, tied up Crook and tossed her, still alive, off a bridge into a Missouri river.
While planning the crime, Simmons assured his accomplice they would not be punished because they were juveniles.
By the time Roper was argued, 31 states had abolished juvenile executions — one more than had abolished the death penalty for the mentally retarded prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia that banned the execution of the mentally retarded.
Last spring, in Graham v. Florida , the U.S. Supreme Court banned LWOP for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.
Graham, a juvenile, was on probation when he was convicted of a home invasion robbery with a firearm. A Florida court sentenced him to life in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court held that a sentence of life without parole was unconstitutional. The court's analysis rested on "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," recognizing the "essential principle" that "the state must respect the human attributes even of those who have committed serious crimes."
The Graham decision applied to only 129 offenders nationwide; 79 were in Florida.
None of Pennsylvania's juvenile lifers are serving sentences for non-homicide offenses, meaning the stage has been set for considering whether life in prison without parole should be outlawed for all juveniles.
And the state Supreme Court is considering just that in Commonwealth v. Qu'eed Batts . The case was argued before the Supreme Court on December 1.
Batts was convicted of first-degree murder for the 2006 shooting death of 16-year-old Clarence Edwards during a shoot-out in Easton. Batts was 14 and a member of the Bloods, a violent street gang, according to the Easton Express-Times .
Batts maintained throughout his trial that he acted under duress and threats of death from a gang leader who ordered the murder. Meanwhile, attorneys for Batts contended Pennsylvania's sentencing scheme was not in line with national trends on sentencing and punishment.
There are only three other states that mandate a sentence of life without parole for a homicide offender who is 14 or younger. The lawyers suggest the constitutional problem with a life sentence in Pennsylvania is that it is mandatory, and life in prison means no possibility of parole, regardless of the age of the offender. They contend that the sentencing law in Pennsylvania not only fails to address the reduced culpability of juveniles, it actually precludes a judge from taking age into account.
Last month, the Superior Court denied the appeal of a Reading man who had been sentenced to life in 1992 for killing a man in a road-rage case when he was 17 years old. The court also denied the appeal of a Lancaster County man who was sentenced to life in prison in 1995 for a killing committed during a robbery when he was 16, according to the York Daily Record.
In both cases, the inmates proceeded pro se.
"The purpose of the appeals is to equate a non-homicide case to a homicide case," said Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams. "No appellate case has taken that position."
According to the Daily Record , Adams offered his support for a change in existing law that would allow a case-by-case review of juveniles serving life sentences.
Finally, the Brown case has received international attention because of the implications of juvenile LWOP.
Last year, Lawrence County Judge Dominick Motto ruled, after a decertification hearing, that Brown should be tried in adult court because he refused to take responsibility for the crime and therefore was not amenable to rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system. If Brown is convicted of first-degree murder, he faces a mandatory sentence of LWOP. He would be the youngest person in the United States to face life in prison.
The Superior Court sent the case back to Lawrence County for a new decertification hearing.
Judge Cheryl Allen wrote for the majority:
"By finding that appellant [Brown] had to admit guilt or accept responsibility for his actions as a condition to proving that he was amendable for [juvenile] treatment, the trial court placed appellant in a situation that needlessly encouraged appellant to sacrifice his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination."
The lone dissenter on the panel, Judge Robert E. Colville, wrote that there was no evidence Brown ever sought to invoke his right against self-incrimination. Even in dissent, however, Colville said the case raised "important and complex questions as to the interplay between the Fifth Amendment and the juvenile decertification and transfer process."
Juveniles sentenced to LWOP in Pennsylvania need not be doomed to a lifetime of hopelessness.
At a minimum, the legislature should provide judges the discretion to sentence juveniles to something other than LWOP following a conviction of first- or second-degree murder. Sentences, especially for juveniles sentenced as adults, should be specifically tailored for each individual offender.
As an alternative, the General Assembly could establish a juvenile life sentence review board. The governor has the ability to grant clemency. The board would be charged with the unique process of reviewing offenders who were sentenced to LWOP as juveniles. The legislature could establish parameters for consideration and guidelines for recommending clemency to the governor.
The final option would be to outlaw LWOP for all juvenile offenders. The Supreme Court may do that with its forthcoming decision in Batts . The legislature has the authority to ban life sentences for juveniles.