The legal landscape has changed significantly since 14-year-old Qu’eed Batts showed up on the front porch of an Easton, Pa., home, shot Clarence Edwards in the head and then shot a fleeing Cory Hilario in the back.
It was 2006, and just a year earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005). Roper held that subjecting juveniles to the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The decision left the door open to life in prison for Batts and juveniles nationwide. In Pennsylvania, a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder is subject to mandatory life in prison without the opportunity for parole.
After Batts’ conviction, his lawyers argued to the Pennsylvania Superior Court that in light of Roper, his life sentence should be struck down as a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Superior Court disagreed.
Batts was granted allowance to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, again raising the Eighth Amendment issue. In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Graham v. Florida, 129 S.Ct. 2157 (2009), dealing with the imposition of life in prison for non-homicide offenses.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held the Batts case in abeyance until Graham was decided.
In Graham, the high court held that the imposition of a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Following oral arguments, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court again reserved consideration of Batts, this time pending a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 548 (2011), and Jackson v. Hobbs, 132 S.Ct. 548 (2001) — each challenging life without parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.
In Miller and Hobbs, the high court banned mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles. The decision, however, did not outlaw life sentences for juveniles. Prosecutors in Pennsylvania and across the country could still pursue life sentences for juvenile killers. The court ruled that state lawmakers could not force a judge to impose a life sentence on a juvenile.
Mandatory sentences prevent judges from exercising discretion.
"It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.
The high court in Miller found that the court’s prior decisions in Graham and Roper "establish that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing," given that children lack maturity and have "an underdeveloped sense of responsibility," can be more susceptible to "negative influences and outside pressures," and have "less fixed" character traits.
"We therefore hold that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders," Kagan wrote.
However, the decision does not categorically bar a penalty for a class of offenders or type of crime like the death penalty for juveniles in Roper, or non-homicide offenses in Graham. The Miller decision simply mandates that a judge follow a process and consider specific factors before imposing sentence.
In the meantime, between the Miller decision and the Batts decision, Governor Tom Corbett signed legislation that provided Pennsylvania judges options other than mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole when sentencing juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.
Under the new statute, a person under 15 years of age at the time of the offense can receive "a term of life imprisonment without parole, or a term of imprisonment, the minimum of which shall be at least 25 years to life." A person at least 15 but under 18 years of age can receive "a term of life imprisonment without parole, or a term of imprisonment, the minimum of which shall be at least 35 years to life."
The implications of Batts must be considered in light of the fact that Pennsylvania leads the nation in offenders who are serving life terms for offenses committed as juveniles. It appears the decision will apply to only about 20 or more juvenile offenders on direct appeal.
Justice Thomas G. Saylor, writing for a unanimous Pennsylvania Supreme Court, summarized the question facing the court: "This case concerns the appropriate remedy, on direct appeal, for the constitutional violation occurring when a mandatory life-without-parole sentence has been imposed on a defendant convicted of first-degree murder who was under the age of 18 at the time of his offense."
Attorneys for Batts argued that in light of the unconstitutional nature of Pennsylvania’s sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, Batts’ sentence should be based on the most severe lesser included offense, third-degree murder with a maximum sentence of 40 years.
Batts also raised a violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Article I, Section 13, which prohibits "cruel punishments." Neither argument impressed the Supreme Court.
Saylor said, "It is our determination here that they [juvenile lifers on direct appeal] are subject to a mandatory maximum sentence of life imprisonment as required by Section 1102(a), accompanied by a minimum sentence determined by the common pleas court upon resentencing."
What that minimum sentence might be was left unanswered by the court, leaving open the possibility that minimum sentences could be crafted to be, essentially, life sentences.
"That could be anything," said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia, to the Morning Call. "It appears that it also could be a minimum of life. There is absolutely nothing to guide [the sentencing judge's] discretion."
That concern seemed to be on the mind of Justice Max Baer in his concurring opinion. 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."
Baer advocated for applying the new statutory scheme when resentencing Batts and similarly situated offenders. Baer’s suggestion has merits and would provide a level of consistency and predictability for those few offenders affected by the decision.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. He is a former district attorney for Lawrence County and a former member of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. You can read his blog, The Cautionary Instruction, every Friday at www.post-gazette.com. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.