In a 5 to 4 decision announced this week, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down laws in 28 states — Pennsylvania among them — that automatically sentence youthful killers to life terms behind bars, calling juvenile life without parole “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The decision follows years of debate on the issue, and the high court’s ruling applies to all inmates under 18 who are serving life sentences. The ruling doesn’t automatically empty cell blocks, nor does it hinder any judge from sentencing a teenage murderer to life. It does, however, leave the important rehabilitative tool of parole on the table.
“I’m ecstatic about this, not only as a defense attorney, but as an attorney in the state that sentences more juveniles to life in prison than any other state in the nation, and any other jurisdiction on earth. Many of these defendants weren’t even present when the murders were committed and didn’t even know what was being done,” said defense attorney and activist Michael Coard. “In 2005, the high court said that executing kids is unconstitutional. We don’t let kids vote, drink or drive or get married because they are impulsive, irrational and sometimes downright silly. The justices applied the same logic to this decision. Now, I’m not a bleeding heart liberal who wants to slap a killer on the wrists just because they’re young. My concern is the idea that there is no possibility of parole. What if after 20, 30, or 40 years in prison the defendant gets his GED, maybe helps the officers during a prison riot, educates himself or becomes a minister or imam? Our intent should always be rehabilitation, and if you take away, even the possibility of parole, what does that inmate have to lose? Parole is the carrot dangling in front of them; it’s an incentive for good behavior.”
Justice Elena Kagan said in a statement that the decision was consistent with the court’s previous acknowledgement that children lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. By nature, children are more susceptible to peer pressure and outside influences and they are more open to being rehabilitated. The court’s opinion does not say whether its ruling applies only to future sentences, or whether new hearings would be granted to the more than 2,000 prisoners across the country who were are serving life terms for murders. The decision doesn’t end life sentences for youthful defendants but it does require that judges must consider their age along with the facts of their crimes.
According to figures from the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the state has almost 500 inmates serving life without parole who either are juveniles or were juveniles at the time of their sentencing.
“I think this is a significant decision and that SCOTUS got it right. This is significant and timely, especially for Pennsylvania, which incarcerates the largest number of juveniles serving life sentences in the country. Sentencing young people automatically to life without parole is unconstitutional,” said prominent civil rights attorney David Rudovsky. “The question in all of this is what kind of reviews will be considered and the review process because of course, every case is different and the appropriateness of the punishment to the circumstances must be considered. It’s not clear yet how all of that will work out. And their prison records have to be reviewed as well.”
One of the most controversial cases that surfaced in Philadelphia was that of Stacey Torrance. Torrance was 14 in 1988 when he was arrested for the murder of Alexander Porter, a young man who was his girlfriend's brother. He was about to enter the tenth grade at a Philadelphia high school under a magnet program for students who excelled academically.
Torrance was convicted of second degree murder (felony murder in Pennsylvania) and sentenced to life without parole. He had no juvenile record, and this was his first offense. He was charged directly in adult court and never had a juvenile transfer hearing. According to court documents and police investigative reports, Torrance agreed to participate in a robbery with two adults, Henry Daniels, who was his cousin, and Kevin Pelzer. The victim was Alexander Porter. They reportedly believed Porter had a lot of money because it was allegedly common knowledge that his family was involved in drug dealing. The plan involved coercing Porter to give over the keys to his apartment so that Daniels and Pelzer could rob it.
Torrance agreed to participate in the robbery scheme, but was not present at Porter’s fatal shooting, nor was there evidence presented at trial that even suggested he knew Daniels and Pelzer were going to murder Porter. Torrance has been serving a life sentence.
“The large number of individuals sentenced to juvenile life without parole represents the dismantling of the founding principles of the juvenile justice system,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project in a press release. “These youth were failed by systems intended to protect children. Many juveniles sentenced to life without parole first suffer from extreme socioeconomic disadvantage, and are then sentenced to an extreme punishment deemed unacceptable in any other nation.”
Last Thursday, Gov. Tom Corbett signed five bills into law that would significantly affect the criminal justice system of Pennsylvania, among them a measure that gives Commonwealth judges more options when sentencing juveniles convicted of murder.
The proposed law, Senate Bill 850, which was originally introduced by State Senator Stewart Greenleaf, means that a juvenile 14-years-old or younger would serve 25 years for a first degree murder conviction and 20 years for a second degree homicide conviction. Defendants 15 to 17-years-old would face 25 or 35 years.
The bill, which Corbett signed into law last week, was Pennsylvania’s response to an earlier Supreme Court ruling in June that declared mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s ruling came after decades of research confirming that the frontal lobe of the juvenile brain — the part that controls reasoning, is undeveloped.
But, as significant a step as this legislation appears to be, some opponents say it ignores the spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision. Pennsylvania missed an opportunity to transform the harshest sentencing scheme in the world into one that is fair, proportional, and consistent with the latest knowledge of adolescent development, said William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
“The Prison Society testified at an earlier legislative hearing on this issue and proposed that the state establish a sentence of 10 years to life for all juveniles,” DiMascio said. “The thinking was that a decade would enable the individual to reach maturity and to show his or her readiness for release. Perhaps the minimum should be 15 years but certainly not more than 20. Most likely few, if any, would get approved at their minimum by the Parole Board. Nevertheless, the state would have control over them for life and could confine them until there was clear and convincing evidence that the person could be released without jeopardizing the community. Some will say a minimum of 10 years, or even 20 years, is not enough time. Others will say life is not enough. But this is not a test to see how tough we can be. The way we develop our justice system is a measure of our civility. We will be judged by the value we put on redemption, not retribution.”
On June 25, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Miller v. Alabama, the landmark case that addressed the constitutionality of juvenile life without parole. The court decided that these sentences were unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of murder’s committed when they were under 18-years-old. Right now Pennsylvania is one of the leading states in the nation with more than 400 juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole following conviction of either first or second degree murder.
Justice Elena Kagan said such sentencing is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
"Mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments',” Kagan wrote. “A judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.
Under the new law, a juvenile defendant age 15 to 17 would receive a minimum of 35 years to life for a first degree murder conviction. The court would impose a sentence of 25 years to life for a defendant age 14 or younger. In cases of second degree murder or felony murder, where there is no evidence of intent to commit murder, such as the cases of Stacey Torrance and Robert Holbrook, the court impose mandatory minimum sentences of 30 years to life for 15-17 year olds, and 20 to life for defendants under 14.
Robert Holbrook was 16 when he was involved in an incident that escalated to murder. On Jan. 21, 1990, Holbrook was allegedly selling drugs for George Padilla. That night, Holbrook, Padilla and others agreed to rob Elsie Olmeda. They forced their way into her home and Olmeda was dragged upstairs. Holbrook stayed downstairs with the victim’s child while Padilla and the co-conspirators allegedly assaulted Olmeda and demanded money. After they found the cash Padilla and the co-conspirators decided to murder Olmeda to prevent her from identifying them. They allegedly tried strangling and then stabbing her. Later, Holbrook got an extension cord and threw it up to Padilla. Olmeda's hands and feet were tied and then she was repeatedly strangled and stabbed. Holbrook heard what was happening but didn’t go upstairs. Olmeda died from multiple stab wounds and strangulation.
During the trial, Holbrook pleaded guilty to third degree murder but the court found his actions showed intent to murder, even though he was the least involved.
Stacey Torrance was 14-years-old when he became involved in a robbery that led to murder in 1998.
Torrance was prosecuted for the murder of Alexander Porter, a young man who was Torrance’s girlfriend’s brother. Before this he had never been involved in any criminal activity. Two adults, Henry Daniels, his cousin, and Kevin Pelzer allegedly got Torrance to agree to participate in robbing Porter, whose family was allegedly involved in drug dealing and it was believed that they had a lot of money. Allegedly, Pelzer and Daniels murdered Porter, killing him with a .25 caliber handgun. Torrance had no prior knowledge of the murder and was not a participant. But he was convicted of felony murder or murder in the second degree. He was sentenced to life without parole.