Back in October, the Pennsylvania General Assembly responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, in which the nation’s high court ruled it was unconstitutional to have mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders. With Act 204 of 2012, signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett on October 25, the legislature brought the state into compliance with the ruling.
The law is prospective, meaning it applies to convictions that occurred after June 24, the day before Miller came down.
But in the recent case of Commonwealth v. Lofton, the state Superior Court said the law could not broadly apply to every case. Particularly, the court was referring to cases where the defendant has preserved issues of constitutionality on direct appeal. In so holding, the three-judge panel remanded the matter to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas for resentencing.
“The legislature failed to contemplate that it is long-standing precedent that persons are generally entitled to the retroactive applicability of decisions when they are pursuing an identical issue on direct appeal,” Judge Mary Jane Bowes wrote for the unanimous panel. “Thus, juveniles convicted before June 24, 2012, but who are on direct appeal, may be entitled to resentencing despite the legislature’s failure to adequately address such juveniles.”
The Superior Court’s December 7 ruling in Lofton suggests that while the legislature may have provided guidance, the legal system is not fully out of the post-Miller weeds.
In Lofton, Kevin Lofton had preserved both federal and state constitutional issues on appeal. He argued his sentence of life without parole for a second-degree murder and other convictions violated his rights to due process, equal protection and those against cruel and unusual punishment.
According to the opinion, the state conceded the point that Lofton was entitled to resentencing.
However, the Superior Court declined to elaborate on a court’s protocol when a prisoner who was sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile did not preserve the issue on direct appeal, saying in a footnote the issue “must be left for another day.”
After Miller came down, but before the legislature passed the act, attorneys said Pennsylvania courtrooms were facing a possible avalanche of litigation from juveniles serving life sentences who had not preserved these issues. Judges, meanwhile, were armed with nothing but a menu of bad options, attorneys told the state Supreme Court.
That came in the argument of Commonwealth v. Cunningham back in September. The case was taken up on appeal to address juveniles serving life sentences who have exhausted direct appeals and are attacking their sentences under the Post-Conviction Relief Act. Basically, the case addresses whether Miller can apply retroactively, and how.
That case awaits judgment.
Hugh J. Burns Jr., appellate chief for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, confirmed the state was not fighting Lofton’s ability to challenge his sentence following Miller.
Matthew T. Mangino, the former district attorney of Lawrence County, said the opinion from the Superior Court in Lofton was not surprising and applied to only the narrow set of cases where the issue was preserved.
“You can’t just say ‘from this point forward, this is how we’re going to resentence juveniles convicted of first-degree murder,’” Mangino said, referring to the Superior Court’s analysis of the new law.
Mangino writes a criminal practice column for the Law Weekly.
So, it seems, more potential docket numbers would be affected by the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Cunningham.
Bradley S. Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia said regardless of whether the case is a direct or collateral appeal, the new law should not apply to convictions before June 24.
Bridge said in an interview and argued before the justices in Cunningham that the only constitutional remedy for cases entitled to resentencing would be to bump the sentences down to guidelines for third-degree murder, which carries a maximum of 40 years.
“After Miller, there is no constitutional sentencing scheme in Pennsylvania for juveniles convicted of first- or second-degree murder,” Bridge said.
The only statute in existence sensible for those pre-June 24 convictions, therefore, is the sentencing scheme for murder in the third degree.
For juveniles convicted of first- or second-degree murder going forward, however, sentencing will be guided by the new law, which considers a host of factors the U.S. Supreme Court outlined in Miller.
The statute, found at 18 Pa.C.S. Section 1102.1, provides sentencing guidelines for juveniles who committed the crimes of murder, murder of an unborn child and murder of a law enforcement officer, and vary for first and second degree. The guidelines are further divided depending on whether the offender was younger or older than 15 at the time of murder.
Per Miller’s mandate, Act 204, formerly Senate Bill 850, instructs courts to consider a host of factors in determining whether to impose a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile murderer.
According to the act, the court is to consider: the impact on each victim; the impact on the community; the threat the offender makes to the safety of the public; nature and circumstances of the offense; degree of culpability; and guidelines for sentencing and resentencing adopted by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.
Additionally, the act asks the court to consider the following “age-related” characteristics of the defendant: age; mental capacity; maturity; degree of criminal sophistication the offender exhibits; nature and extent of any priors, including the success of court-sponsored rehabilitation attempts, probation or institutional reports; and “other relevant factors.”
(Copies of the 14-page opinion in Commonwealth v. Lofton, PICS No. 12-2300, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •