Monday, October 17, 2022

End life-without-parole in Pennsylvania for second-degree murder

 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial:

The state appeals court should strike down a Pennsylvania law mandating life-without-parole sentences for second-degree murder. If the court fails to do it, the Pennsylvania General Assembly should scrap this draconian law. 

There is ample precedent for judicial review of a law that tests the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court has eliminated, on constitutional grounds, other unduly harsh sentencing laws, such as mandatory life sentences for juveniles, after state legislatures failed to act on them.   

Pennsylvania’s felony murder law is an outlier. Only a handful of other states, including Louisiana, impose similar sentences. It’s cruel because it allows no judicial discretion in light of circumstances, imposing automatic life sentences, with no possibility of parole, on people who did not kill anyone or intend to, or even know a weapon was present, if they participated in a crime that resulted in a murder. The law does not distinguish between accomplices and principals. It is a brutal example of one-size-fits-all justice. 

Striking down the law would not mean some people convicted of second-degree murder would not serve life sentences. It would simply give the state Parole Board the option to release people after serving lengthy prison sentences. 

A case argued before a three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Pittsburgh last month is typical. Derek Lee, now 34, is serving a mandatory life sentence for a murder committed by his partner in a robbery. 

In October of 2014, Lee entered a home in Elliott, intending, by all available evidence, to steal, not to kill. Lee, then 26, was upstairs when his partner, Paul Durham, shot a man to death in the basement.  Though Lee did not kill anyone, he and Durham were convicted of the same crime and received the same sentence: mandatory life for second-degree murder, otherwise called felony murder. 

Bret Grote, a member of the Abolitionist Law Center who represents Lee, correctly argued that Lee’s mandatory life sentence was excessively cruel. By presuming no possibility for change or rehabilitation, the law serves neither justice nor the taxpayer. Each prisoner costs the state an average of $42,000 a year.

People can, and do, change. A Sept. 25, column by Editorial Page Editor Jeffery Gerritt profiled three men in Michigan who had been convicted of murder and are now living productive lives. They are working with young people and ex-offenders to make their communities safer. Like most states, Michigan does not impose mandatory life sentences for second-degree murder. 

State prisons in Pennsylvania hold 1,100 people convicted of felony murder. Black people make up 70% of them, though they constitute just over 12% of Pennsylvania’s  population. 

The felony murder law has become a campaign issue in the U.S. Senate race between Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman. But this ineffective and costly law should not be a partisan issue. It is poor public policy and recognized as such by conservatives and liberals alike.    

The Pennsylvania courts have sufficient grounds to strike down the state’s felony murder law. If they don’t, the General Assembly should reject it as soon as possible. 

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