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As courts and government agencies across the state sort through the unconstitutional sentences of life without parole handed to nearly 500 Pennsylvania inmates, the state Supreme Court has said it will review whether it should create procedural safeguards to ensure the sentence is used sparingly.

The justices agreed April 19 in Commonwealth v. Batts to address the discretionary imposition of juvenile sentences of life without parole, as well as to determine whether Qu’eed Batts’ resentencing should be reconsidered in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which found the sentence should be “uncommon” and reserved for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”

In its allocatur grant, the court said it will look at its own potential role in instituting a presumption against juvenile sentences of life without parole, a requirement for competent expert testimony, and a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof, among other possible safeguards.

Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, who has been involved with juvenile lifer litigation for more than a decade, said the justices taking up Batts represents the beginning of a process by which Pennsylvania will meet the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller mandate.

“Life without parole is supposed to be unusual, uncommon or rare,” Bridge said. But at the moment, “there are no such procedures [to meet that requirement], no such guarantee, and it’s completely arbitrary.”

Bridge compared sentences like the one given to Batts with the death penalty, which is meant to be reserved for “the worst of the worst,” he said. The Batts case could move Pennsylvania toward treating sentences of life without parole in a similar manner, he said, in part by focusing courts’ discretion.

Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center, who represents Batts, said the case could result in the court immediately instituting guidelines regarding burdens and presumptions, among other options. She said some other state supreme courts around the country have found in favor of some of the procedures Batts is seeking.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s words in Miller and in its January decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, Levick said, lead her to believe a sentence of life without parole should be handed to juveniles “almost never.” Montgomery identified “a very narrow sliver of juveniles who could be eligible for this sentence,” she said, and Batts presents an opportunity for the state’s high court to help address that concern.

Batts was convicted of a gang-related, first-degree murder that he committed in 2006, when he was 14, and sentenced to life without parole under the mandatory sentencing guidelines in place at the time. In 2013, in the wake of Miller, the Supreme Court remanded his case for resentencing. The trial court concluded in May 2014 that factors weighing against Batts “‘significantly outweigh[ed] the factors in his favor,’” Superior Court Judge Sallie Updyke Mundy wrote in a Sept. 4, 2015, opinion reviewing the resentencing. Batts was once again sentenced to life without parole.

Before the Superior Court, Batts argued that the court should create a different standard of review and burden of proof in cases of juveniles receiving life-without-parole sentences. He asked the court to heighten its standard of review from “abuse of discretion” to “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is ordinarily reserved for capital cases, Mundy said. Batts reasoned that raising the standard of review would enforce a presumption against such sentences.

“Absent a specific directive from our Supreme Court or the General Assembly to do so, we decline to expand the narrow holding in Miller,” Mundy said.

Batts also asserted that he was entitled to the same procedural due process afforded to adults facing capital punishment, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida, which compared life without parole to a death sentence. As such, he argued, a juvenile facing life without parole should have the right to be sentenced by a jury, a burden of proof weighted against the state, the requirement of a unanimous verdict, and automatic review by the state’s high court, Mundy said. The Superior Court again disagreed.

“We cannot discern any constitutional due process basis or statutory ground to provide juveniles facing life imprisonment without parole the same procedural due process protections as adults facing the death penalty,” she said.

The state Supreme Court said it will review whether the lower court’s use of the “highly deferential” abuse-of-discretion standard should be reversed. The justices also agreed to hear argument over the constitutionality of Batts’ resentencing hearing, in light of the comparison to capital punishment.

Bridge said the possible procedures outlined in the court’s allocatur order would be a start, but to truly address the issue, the court would need to go further. Proportionality review, as is used in death-penalty cases, would be important, he said, as would establishing requirements for attorneys capable of representing clients facing life-without-parole sentences.

Terence Houck of the Northampton County District Attorney’s Office, representing the state, said the office is “prepared to face whatever’s ahead regarding this and continues to maintain the guy deserves a life sentence.”

Ben Seal can be contacted at 215-557-2368 or bseal@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @BSealTLI. •

As courts and government agencies across the state sort through the unconstitutional sentences of life without parole handed to nearly 500 Pennsylvania inmates, the state Supreme Court has said it will review whether it should create procedural safeguards to ensure the sentence is used sparingly.

The justices agreed April 19 in Commonwealth v. Batts to address the discretionary imposition of juvenile sentences of life without parole, as well as to determine whether Qu’eed Batts’ resentencing should be reconsidered in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which found the sentence should be “uncommon” and reserved for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”

In its allocatur grant, the court said it will look at its own potential role in instituting a presumption against juvenile sentences of life without parole, a requirement for competent expert testimony, and a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof, among other possible safeguards.

Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, who has been involved with juvenile lifer litigation for more than a decade, said the justices taking up Batts represents the beginning of a process by which Pennsylvania will meet the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller mandate.

“Life without parole is supposed to be unusual, uncommon or rare,” Bridge said. But at the moment, “there are no such procedures [to meet that requirement], no such guarantee, and it’s completely arbitrary.”

Bridge compared sentences like the one given to Batts with the death penalty, which is meant to be reserved for “the worst of the worst,” he said. The Batts case could move Pennsylvania toward treating sentences of life without parole in a similar manner, he said, in part by focusing courts’ discretion.

Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center, who represents Batts, said the case could result in the court immediately instituting guidelines regarding burdens and presumptions, among other options. She said some other state supreme courts around the country have found in favor of some of the procedures Batts is seeking.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s words in Miller and in its January decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, Levick said, lead her to believe a sentence of life without parole should be handed to juveniles “almost never.” Montgomery identified “a very narrow sliver of juveniles who could be eligible for this sentence,” she said, and Batts presents an opportunity for the state’s high court to help address that concern.

Batts was convicted of a gang-related, first-degree murder that he committed in 2006, when he was 14, and sentenced to life without parole under the mandatory sentencing guidelines in place at the time. In 2013, in the wake of Miller, the Supreme Court remanded his case for resentencing. The trial court concluded in May 2014 that factors weighing against Batts “‘significantly outweigh[ed] the factors in his favor,’” Superior Court Judge Sallie Updyke Mundy wrote in a Sept. 4, 2015, opinion reviewing the resentencing. Batts was once again sentenced to life without parole.

Before the Superior Court, Batts argued that the court should create a different standard of review and burden of proof in cases of juveniles receiving life-without-parole sentences. He asked the court to heighten its standard of review from “abuse of discretion” to “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is ordinarily reserved for capital cases, Mundy said. Batts reasoned that raising the standard of review would enforce a presumption against such sentences.

“Absent a specific directive from our Supreme Court or the General Assembly to do so, we decline to expand the narrow holding in Miller,” Mundy said.

Batts also asserted that he was entitled to the same procedural due process afforded to adults facing capital punishment, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida, which compared life without parole to a death sentence. As such, he argued, a juvenile facing life without parole should have the right to be sentenced by a jury, a burden of proof weighted against the state, the requirement of a unanimous verdict, and automatic review by the state’s high court, Mundy said. The Superior Court again disagreed.

“We cannot discern any constitutional due process basis or statutory ground to provide juveniles facing life imprisonment without parole the same procedural due process protections as adults facing the death penalty,” she said.

The state Supreme Court said it will review whether the lower court’s use of the “highly deferential” abuse-of-discretion standard should be reversed. The justices also agreed to hear argument over the constitutionality of Batts’ resentencing hearing, in light of the comparison to capital punishment.

Bridge said the possible procedures outlined in the court’s allocatur order would be a start, but to truly address the issue, the court would need to go further. Proportionality review, as is used in death-penalty cases, would be important, he said, as would establishing requirements for attorneys capable of representing clients facing life-without-parole sentences.

Terence Houck of the Northampton County District Attorney’s Office, representing the state, said the office is “prepared to face whatever’s ahead regarding this and continues to maintain the guy deserves a life sentence.”

Ben Seal can be contacted at 215-557-2368 or bseal@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @BSealTLI. •