The constitutional challenge of a youth convicted of murder on direct appeal of his life-without-parole sentence is back in the hands of a Northampton County judge, now that the state Supreme Court has remanded his case for resentencing in light of U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
However, the high court’s ruling in Commonwealth v. Batts only applies to a handful of appeals in instances where juveniles preserved their direct appeal rights and received sentences of life with parole before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama, the case that said such sentences, which had been allowed in Pennsylvania for juveniles guilty of first- and second-degree murder, are in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Legal observers have noted the Batts case would impact far fewer sentences than another case in the justices’ queue — Commonwealth v. Cunningham — which addresses juveniles serving life sentences who have exhausted direct appeals and are attacking their sentences under the Post-Conviction Relief Act.
Cunningham, in other words, deals with the issue of retroactivity.
Press reports put the number of Pennsylvania inmates sentenced to life for crimes committed as juveniles at about 500, among the highest in the country.
In Batts, Justice Thomas G. Saylor’s 22-page majority opinion essentially says: See Miller; resentence accordingly.
Saylor wrote: "Miller neither barred imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile categorically nor indicated that a life sentence with the possibility of parole could never be mandatorily imposed on a juvenile. Rather, Miller requires only that there be judicial consideration of the appropriate age-related factors set forth in that decision prior to the imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on a juvenile."
Miller has required courts to consider several nonspecific factors before coming down with a sentence of life without parole on someone under 18.
Those factors include: the juvenile’s age at the time of the offense; diminished culpability and capacity for change; the circumstances of the crime; participation level in the crime; family, home and neighborhood environment; emotional maturity and development; the extent to which peer or familial pressure contributed to the crime; previous exposure to violence; drug and alcohol history; ability to deal with police; capacity to assist one’s attorney; mental health history; and potential for rehabilitation.
Attorneys representing Qu’eed Batts, convicted of a gang-related, first-degree murder that he committed when he was 14, unsuccessfully argued to the high court that it must guide lower courts to look to the next most severe sanction in resentencing the juveniles. In this instance, attorneys argued back in September, the sentence of a maximum of 40 years’ imprisonment for third-degree murder was it.
But the majority of the court agreed with attorneys for the Northampton County District Attorney’s Office and their amicus support that a remand for a minimum sentence — which Saylor made clear could very well be life — is, in Saylor’s words, "the most appropriate remedy for the federal constitutional violation that occurred when a life-without-parole sentence was mandatorily applied to [Batts]."
The state argued that Miller only invalidated the parole eligibility portion of the old sentencing scheme, which has since been updated by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The parole eligibility provision did not distinguish a juvenile offender from an adult in categorically blocking the possibility of parole.
"It was exactly what our argument was," said Terence P. Houck of the Northampton County District Attorney’s Office. "The attempt here [by the defense] was to try to get murder in the first degree invalidated, which we had argued was nonsense."
He said the defense argument drew in the question of whether third-degree murderers could receive the same sentence as those convicted of first-degree murder.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Max Baer said he agreed with the majority’s analysis, but wrote to urge trial judges to resentence the juvenile killers whose circumstances match those of Batts along the lines of recent changes to the relevant sentencing scheme, even though the law technically doesn’t apply to Batts’ case.
Under the new law, an offender convicted of first-degree murder who is at least 15 years old (but under 18) may receive a sentence ranging from 35 years’ imprisonment to life without parole. Those under 15 (like Batts) may be sentenced anywhere from 25 years to life without parole.
The law varies slightly for juveniles convicted of second-degree murder, slimming each of the aforementioned minimum sentences by five years. The maximum for second-degree murder is still life for any juvenile, but the law removes "without parole" from the higher end.
The law also lists the Miller factors as considerations for where on the spectrum judges should land in handing down their sentences.
Though the legislature made clear the new law would apply to convictions dated on or after Miller came down (the U.S. Supreme Court decided it on June 25, 2012), Baer said in his concurrence that it "would be wise" to follow the policy determinations the legislature considered in the new sentencing law.
"If trial courts fail to take guidance from the recent legislative enactments, the minimum sentence imposed on any given juvenile before becoming eligible for parole could vary widely," Baer said. "One court could immediately parole an 18-year-old offender, while another court could impose a 50-year minimum sentence on a 14-year-old offender."
Batts had initially challenged his sentence after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons in 2005 that subjecting juveniles to death sentences violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution barring cruel and unusual punishment.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 decided that it is unconstitutional to subject non-homicide offenders to life without parole in Graham v. Florida.
It wasn’t until June of last year that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, decided in Miller and Jackson v. Hobbs, a companion case, that mandatory life without parole was unconstitutional. The ruling prompted courts in jurisdictions around the country to address the issue of resentencing juveniles and prompted state governments to rewrite sentencing schemes.
Matthew T. Mangino, the former district attorney of Lawrence County and a current Law Weekly columnist, called the Batts decision "very narrow."
"Justice Saylor was sure to say every chance he could this is an issue on direct appeal," Mangino said.
Cunningham, Mangino added, was likely to affect more cases.
Mangino added he thinks the court should allow juveniles to attack their sentences collaterally in light of the new sentencing laws, especially for those convicted of second-degree murder, because the new guidelines do not list life with parole as an option for that crime.
Meanwhile, the justices took up Cunningham to address juveniles serving life sentences who have exhausted direct appeals and are attacking their sentences under the Post-Conviction Relief Act. In other words, the case addresses whether Miller can apply retroactively, and how.
The court had not decided that case as of press time.
According to Bradley S. Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the instant case is poised to affect about a dozen to 18 cases, whereas Cunningham, according to Bridge’s research, could affect hundreds.
Bridge said the problem with the Batts decision was that the majority of the court did not provide guidance to make sure mandatory life without parole was an "unusual" circumstance, per the mandate of Miller’s five-justice majority. The attorney already has other cases in the appeals process challenging the General Assembly’s amendments to the sentencing scheme on constitutional grounds, arguing the new laws do not provide enough guidance to sentencing judges.
Bridge said handing down "huge, draconian sentences essentially compound the error" the U.S. Supreme Court tried to correct in Miller.
Bridge is co-counsel for both Batts and Ian Cunningham, who was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole before Miller came down.
(Copies of the 25-page opinion in Commonwealth v. Batts, PICS No. 13-0741, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •