MCN/USA TODAY NETWORK
February 19, 2021
Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution in 22
years. More than 58 years have passed
since the last prisoner in the Commonwealth was executed involuntarily.
Pennsylvania might not be carrying out executions—Governor Tom Wolf has
declared a moratorium on executions—Pennsylvania has thousands of de facto
death sentences. There are about 5,200 state prisoners serving what has been
referred to as “death-by-incarceration.”
death-by-incarceration? Offenders condemned to life in prison without the
possibility of parole.
Under Pennsylvania’s sentencing scheme, offenders—other than
lifers—are sentenced to a minimum and a maximum term of sentence. The maximum must be at least twice the
Pennsylvania, once an inmate has served her minimum sentence she is eligible
for parole. Release from prison is
determined by the parole board. Once
released the offender is supervised on parole until the expiration of her
sentence in Pennsylvania has no minimum—there is no opportunity for parole—life
means life in Pennsylvania.
much sympathy for an offender who has been sentenced to life without parole for
killing another human being. However, in
Pennsylvania more than 20 percent of lifers didn’t kill anyone. Those offenders were convicted of
second-degree murder—felony murder.
Felony murder is a statutory crime in Pennsylvania
promulgated at 25 Pa.C.S.A. 2502 (b) providing “[C]riminal homicide constitutes
murder of the second degree when it is committed while defendant was engaged as
a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony.” The law in Pennsylvania is clear, if a death
occurs during the commission of a felony, the death is considered murder and anybody
who participated in the felony is equally responsible for the murder,
regardless of whether they had any criminal intent to harm or cause death.
The concept of felony murder can produce bizarre
outcomes. For instance, two teens go
into a convenience store unarmed. They pretend to have guns and ask the store
owner to turn over the cash. The owner pulls a gun and kills one of the
would-be robbers. The surviving robber
can be convicted of Second Degree Murder and sentenced to life in prison, even
though he had no intent to kill and no means to kill.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have tried to provide hope for those
serving life sentences. A recent proposal would have allowed lifers a chance at
parole after serving 35 years on a first-degree murder conviction and 25 years
on second-degree murder. The proposal
never made it to the floor for a vote.
Now a lawsuit has been filed on behalf of six people
convicted in their late teens of “felony murder,” arguing that prohibiting
parole consideration for felony murder is cruel and unconstitutional under
Pennsylvania law. Article I, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution
prohibits “cruel punishment.” Pennsylvania’s constitutional provision predates
the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are three women and
three men who have served between 23 and 47 years in Pennsylvania prisons. Each
was sentenced to life after a felony murder conviction. None committed or
intended to commit any killing in the course of the crime.
The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole has denied
the plaintiffs parole consideration through 61 Pa.C.S.A. 6137(a) that prohibits
individuals serving life sentences from parole eligibility. The plaintiffs seek
to show the parole statute is “grossly disproportionate to any legitimate
penological interest as applied to individuals who did not take a life or
intend to take a life, and must be struck down.”
With essentially no death penalty in Pennsylvania—and what
appears to be the slow undoing of the death penalty nationwide—it is ridiculous
to impose the same sentence of life in prison without parole on an individual
who commits planned premediated murder and someone who is along for the
ride. The legislature must act to provide
a sense of hope for those serving a felony murder life sentence and provide the
option of parole for those sentenced in the future.
(Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett,
Kelly & George P.C. in New Castle, PA. He is the author of The
Executioner’s Toll, 2010. His weekly syndicated column is distributed by Gannett.
You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com
and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino)
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