Matthew T. Mangino
The Legal Intelligencer/PLW
August 3, 2017
Qu'eed Batts will soon be scheduled for his third sentencing hearing. His long and torturous journey through the criminal justice system has placed him right smack in the middle of a judicially driven realignment of juvenile punishment.
Batts was convicted of first-degree murder for a gang-related killing he committed as a 14-year-old. He was sentenced to life without parole in 2007. His case ultimately made it to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court where it was remanded to the trial court for resentencing.
In 2014, Batts was again sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His case made its way back to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court where last month the court said, "We are now in the undesirable position of yet again having to remand Batts' case for resentencing."
That line from the court's opinion vastly understates everything leading up to the court's decision in Batts. In Commonwealth v. Batts, No. 45 MAP 2016, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state must bear a high burden—establish a juvenile is permanently incorrigible—before the court can impose a sentence of life without parole.
The origins of this decision can be traced back nearly 30 years. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 US 815 (1988). At the age of 15, William Thompson was tried as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
The high court held that the execution of a person under the age of 16 violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment." The court noted the uniform ban among all relevant state statutes against the execution of an offender under the age of 16. The court held executing an offender under 16 would violate the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."
The high court for the first time acknowledged that age of an offender was a disqualifying factor for purposes of the death penalty. One year later, the court was not inclined to expand the age for disqualification. In Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 US 361 (1989), the Supreme Court refused to ban the execution of 16- and 17-year-olds. The Supreme Court ruled, "With respect to American society, there is no national consensus regarding the imposition of capital punishments on 17- or 16-year-old individuals."
In the 1990s with the now debunked "superpredators" and increasing violence in urban areas, things got tougher for youthful offenders in Pennsylvania.
In 1995, Pennsylvania's newly elected governor, Tom Ridge, called for a special legislative session on crime. Pennsylvania fell in line with many other states as Ridge convinced the legislature to overhaul the juvenile justice system with the mantra "adult time for adult crime."
As a result, a fundamental change in the law made it easier to charge juveniles as adults. In fact, certain violent offenses require prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. 6302. At the time, conviction of first- or second-degree murder in Pennsylvania meant a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
This contributed to Pennsylvania's distinction of having more than 500 people in prison for life for killings committed as juveniles—the most in the nation.
It took 16 years for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the death penalty and juveniles. In 2005, the Supreme Court banned the execution of juveniles in the landmark decision Roper v. Simmons, 543 US 551 (2005).
In a 5-4 opinion delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court ruled that standards of decency have evolved in the prior 16 years so that executing minors is "cruel and unusual punishment." The majority cited a consensus against the juvenile death penalty among state legislatures, and its own determination that the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment for minors.
However, Kennedy went beyond the issue of evolving standards of decency. Kennedy wrote in Roper that juveniles are cognitively immature and therefore less culpable. The brain development argument sent the issue of juvenile punishment in a whole new direction.
The juvenile criminal court system is distinctly different from the adult criminal court system. The juvenile system is not punitive. The focus has always been on rehabilitation and is oriented toward the treatment of young offenders. Adult court is more about retribution and incapacitation. Sure there are some young offenders who are not amenable to treatment and are so dangerous that only a lifetime of incarceration would protect the public. How do you differentiate between a juvenile who should be in prison and one who belongs in treatment? Kennedy wrote in Roper, "It is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption." He went on to write that it is impermissible to render an opinion about antisocial disorders in offenders under age 18.
The evolution of juvenile punishment continued. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida, 560 US 48 (2010), struck down the punishment of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles who committed crimes other than homicide. In that case, though only 13 states had abolished the punishment, the court nevertheless found a national consensus against the punishment because an additional 26 states did not actually have any juveniles serving a life sentence.
Then came Miller v. Alabama, 567 US 46 (2012). The high court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole imposed upon a juvenile violated the Eighth Amendment.
The decision, however, did not outlaw life sentences for juveniles. Prosecutors in Pennsylvania and across the country could still pursue life sentences for juvenile killers. The court ruled that state lawmakers cannot force a judge to impose a life sentence on a juvenile.
Mandatory sentences prevent judges from exercising discretion. "It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. "We therefore hold that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders," Kagan wrote. However, the court did not address whether the decision was retroactive. For Pennsylvania the question remained, what does the state do with the 500 juvenile lifers already in prison?
The legislature addressed the issue of juvenile sentencing for first- and second-degree murder after Miller. The new law provided at least 25 years for those who killed when 14 and younger, and at least 35 years for defendants who were between ages 15 and 18. Life without parole was banned for juveniles convicted of second-degree murder.
Juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania were dealt a blow in 2013 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Cunningham, 83 A.3d 1 (2013), a 4-3 decision finding Miller was not retroactive.
According to Cunningham, Miller only applied to cases that were pending on appeal at the time Miller was decided in 2012. The majority opinion written by Justice Thomas G. Saylor found, "Here, applying settled principles of appellate review, nothing in appellant's arguments persuades us that Miller's proscription of the imposition of mandatory life-without-parole sentences upon offenders under the age of 18 at the time their crimes were committed must be extended to those whose judgments of sentence were final as of the time of Miller's announcement."
Then in 2016 hope was restored. The U.S. Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 US ___ (2016). The high court expanded Miller saying that the decision must be applied retroactively to an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 inmates—500 of whom were in Pennsylvania—from states where the courts had decided that Miller was not retroactive.
Henry Montgomery was 17 years old when he shot and killed a deputy sheriff. Montgomery was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Kennedy, writing for the 6-3 majority, held that Montgomery and other similarly situated offenders were entitled to resentencing or parole consideration.
The new decision appeared to go beyond the actual scope of the Miller ruling according to the SCOTUSBlog. Montgomery provided that in the future a newly convicted juvenile will be able to show, at the time of sentencing, that he is not beyond rehabilitation. The court declared that life without parole—not just mandatory life without parole—is always unconstitutional for a juvenile unless he is found to be "irreparably corrupt" or "permanently incorrigible."
That brings us to Batts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found Miller and Montgomery establish a presumption against life without parole sentences for juveniles and that the burden is on prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a young person is incapable of rehabilitation before such a sentence is issued. Justice Christine Donohue, who authored the decision, stated that when Batts is re-sentenced he must be provided "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."
The court concluded "There is a presumption against the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for a defendant convicted of first-degree murder committed as a juvenile. The commonwealth must give reasonable notice of its intention to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. To rebut the presumption, the commonwealth has the burden to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is permanently incorrigible and thus unable to be rehabilitated."
The tally sheet for juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania looks like this—according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections—there have been 516 juvenile lifers in the prison system, two have died, 40 have been released, 93 have been resentenced and 56 have been paroled. Batts is now 26 years old and spends his days at SCI Coal Township. He will soon get another chance at someday being a free man.
Special to the Law Weekly Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. His book "The Executioner's Toll," 2010, was released by McFarland Publishing. Contact him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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