Follow by Email

Monday, July 9, 2012

Court ruling on juveniles could affect 12 from Erie, Crawford

Court ruling on juveniles could affect 12 from Erie, Crawford

Updated: July 9, 2012 5:14 PM EST
Court ruling on juveniles could affect 12 from Erie, Crawford
By ED PALATTELLA, Erie Times-News

Earlier versions of this story included an incorrect date for a hearing in Harrisburg on the issue of inmates serving sentences for murders they committed as juveniles. The hearing will be Thursday.

Life might no longer mean life for 12 state inmates from Erie and Crawford counties.

The 12 are serving mandatory life sentences with no parole for murders they committed when they were younger than 18.

Parole has become a possibility for each of them after the U.S. Supreme Court in June banned mandatory life sentences, without parole, for juvenile offenders.

Local officials expect the Supreme Court ruling to be retroactive, but they are waiting for direction on how to follow the 5-4 decision, issued June 25.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly is preparing to act. On Thursday, the state Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing in Harrisburg on the Supreme Court decision, which held that mandatory life sentences, without parole, for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and inhuman punishment.

The decision does not affect inmates who received those sentences for murders they committed as adults.

What the state Legislature does will help determine the process by which the affected inmates would seek relief, by petitioning a judge, for example, or by filing an appeal with the state Board of Probation and Parole.

More than 2,000 inmates who committed murder as juveniles are serving life sentences with no parole nationwide, including 373 in Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Corrections and the Juvenile Law Center, of Philadelphia. Nine of those 373 inmates are from Erie County, and three are from Crawford County.

"It is kind of up in the air," said Erie County's chief public defender, Pat Kennedy, a former assistant district attorney. "Is there going to have to be a resentencing?"

Kennedy, who handled cases in Juvenile Court as a prosecutor, said she is tracking the developments to determine when her office may have to get involved in the inmates seeking relief.

Erie County President Judge Ernest J. DiSantis Jr., who is also monitoring the possible changes, said the state Parole Board might have a role. He said the board, rather than county judges, has control over whether to grant parole for inmates serving state sentences, including inmates sentenced to life.

"If they file something with us," DiSantis said of the inmates sentenced as juveniles, "I don't know whether we would have jurisdiction."

The Parole Board is studying the Supreme Court decision but has no comment at this time, a spokesman for the board said.

The Supreme Court ruling, made in the case of Miller v. Alabama, does not prohibit a juvenile convicted of murder from serving a life sentence without parole.

The justices ruled that such sentences cannot be mandatory, as they had been in Pennsylvania and other states for juveniles tried as adults and convicted of first-degree murder, or a premeditated homicide; or second-degree murder, or a killing committed during a felony, such as a robbery.

The Supreme Court found that a life sentence without parole can be an option, but not a requirement, for a juvenile, Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri said.

Under the ruling, he said, a sentencing judge, for example, must have the discretion to impose a life sentence with or without parole, based on the facts of each case.

Life sentences without parole for juveniles "are no longer automatic," Daneri said. "It is kind of a limited ruling."

He said the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association will ask the Legislature to draft a law to create a sentencing structure to reflect the Supreme Court ruling.

Daneri said he was disappointed with the ruling. He said the juveniles affected by it were sentenced not for typical crimes, but for the most serious of offenses.

"The ones who got life without parole were convicted of first- or second-degree murder," Daneri said.

ED PALATTELLA can be reached at 870-1813 or by e-mail. Follow him on Twitter at

No comments:

Post a Comment