Prison cell. Credit: BigStock.
Prison cell. Credit: BigStock. ()

With the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issuing a much-anticipated ruling on juveniles’ prison sentences of life without parole, Pennsylvania courts have begun to move forward toward resentencing hundreds of persons who had sentences struck down as unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court late last month unanimously determined that courts should have a presumption against imposing sentences of life without parole for juveniles, and that, to overcome that presumption, prosecutors will need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the offender is incapable of being rehabilitated. The ruling in Commonwealth v. Batts is widely viewed as the capstone on a series of decisions involving life sentences for juveniles, and a ruling that should guide practitioners through an area of law that has undergone a sea change over the past few years.

In early 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in Montgomery v. Louisiana that its ban on mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles should be applied retroactively. With nearly 500 inmates in Pennsylvania fitting that category, the Keystone State had the largest population of juvenile lifers who would need to be given a new sentencing hearing, but many jurisdictions in Pennsylvania decided to hold off on the proceedings, pending further guidance from the Supreme Court.

According to Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center, who led the charge on the juvenile life without parole issue and was one of the attorneys representing Qu’eed Batts, there are still about 400 inmates in Pennsylvania awaiting resentencing.

“Any county that’s been on pause will certainly hit the on switch,” Levick said. “The holding is incredibly important, and I think it really places Pennsylvania on the right side of this issue.”

The Montgomery decision had overruled the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s holding in Commonwealth v. Cunningham, which had determined that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama should not be retroactive. Miller, which came down in 2012, had held mandatory life imprisonment schemes unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.

Batts had been given a life without parole sentence in 2007 after he’d been convicted of a gang-related, first-degree murder that he committed in 2006, when he was 14. In 2013, in the wake of Miller, the Supreme Court remanded his case for resentencing, but Batts was once again sentenced to life without parole.

Justice Christine Donohue, in her 85-page opinion in Batts, outlined the facts of the case, including his history of neglect as a child, and discussed evidence presented at Batts’ two prior sentencing hearings, as well as the case law. Donohue said the burden for imposing a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender needed to be raised to meet the requirements in Miller and Montgomery, and ultimately determined Batts needed to be resentenced a third time.

Attorneys agreed the ruling provides clarity for practitioners when it comes to plea bargaining, and how sentencing hearings should proceed when life without parole is sought.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, who prosecuted Batts, said the ruling sets a “very high bar,” particularly when it comes to expert testimony.

“I believe our expert basically did everything that’s required under U.S. Supreme Court law for showing that a defendant is not amenable for treatment,” he said. “The court found this is not credible, so we’re going back to the drawing board.”

Ardmore attorney Peter Goldberger, who filed an amicus in Batts for the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, noted that if prosecutors pursue a life without parole sentence, counties will need to also provide defendants with a mitigation expert and possibly an investigator as well.

“These kind of hearings for juveniles are going to be more elaborate and time-consuming. They’re going to cost the county a lot of money,” Goldberger said. “It’s certainly implied that the prosecution should use some rigorous discretion before asking a judge.”

Although Batts establishes that life without parole sentences should be handed down only in the rarest of circumstances, Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan said he is hoping the case Commonwealth v. Smith, which his office is handling, will present the Pennsylvania appellate courts their first opportunity to find that high burden has been met.

“We want Smith in front of the Supreme Court to say, ‘Yep. That’s a guy who’s incorrigible,’” Hogan said.

The defendant in Smith is Samuel Edward Smith, who crushed his neighbor’s skull with a pipe wrench and then slashed the man’s throat, before stealing his car and the money from his pocket. Since being sentenced to life without parole about 20 years ago, Smith allegedly attempted to escape, was cited with misconduct 19 times, and became a leader of a neo-Nazi prison gang.

Smith was resentenced to a life term last year, and the case is on appeal to the Superior Court. Hogan said, given that Batts had been on appeal at the time of Smith’s re-sentencing hearing, his office stipulated to both the presumption against life without parole and the beyond a reasonable doubt burden of proof. Hogan also said his office listened to a year’s worth of phone calls from Smith, and used unusual experts—including a Department of Corrections official to compare Smith with other inmates, and an expert focusing on white supremacy gangs—at the latest resentencing.

“Our concern as prosecutors is this becoming a moving target,” Hogan said. “We want Batts to be the target that established the standards. We do not want to see another case that meets all the Batts requirements, and then for the court to move the target and add a few more requirements.”