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North Side killer sentenced to life in prison as a teen could go free after 48 years

Megan Guza
| Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, 6:03 p.m.

Albert Irby's sister broke into a smile Wednesday morning when he shuffled down the hall of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, shackled and cuffed and led by a sheriff's deputy.

“Hi, baby, how are you?” Carolyn Abram gushed as Irby, 65, was led into Judge Beth Lazzara's courtroom.

Abram has helped care for her brother for the past 48 years — ever since he was arrested for murder as a teen and sentenced to life in prison. Now, she hopes that she'll soon be able to care for him in her home as a free man.

Irby was 17 when he shot and killed North Side shopkeeper Sam Shaheen during an attempted robbery on Sept. 22, 1969. A jury convicted him of first-degree murder, leading to a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. No one from Shaheen's family spoke during the hearing.

A 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Another ruling last year made that decision retroactive.

Four inmates originally sentenced in Allegheny County were eligible for new sentences under the Supreme Court decision. Irby is the longest-serving of those four.

Lazzara resentenced Irby to 48 years to life in prison with credit for time served. Irby has been in custody since Sept. 24, 1969. He will be eligible for parole Sept. 24.

Assistant District Attorney Ronald Wabby Jr. argued that Irby, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia since being incarcerated, has a history of refusing to take his medication, at which point he can become physically and verbally abusive.

“He has been difficult for the state prison system to control,” Wabby said.

Irby's attorney, Scott Coffey, argued that it has been 12 years since SCI-Greene recorded a refusal by Coffey to take his medication. Coffey said he believes Irby will do whatever he is ordered to do if paroled.

Irby has maintained his innocence since his arrest and on Wednesday alleged that the confession used to convict him was beaten out of him by police.

His answers to Lazzara were noncommittal when she pressed him on whether he would comply with parole guidelines, such as taking medication, attending counseling sessions and living in a mental health facility.

Abram expressed her hope and willingness for her brother to live with her and her husband, John, if he is paroled.

“I take care of my baby,” she said. “In here, out there — it don't matter.”

Lazzara expressed concerns, indicating she feared Irby would refuse his medication and be a risk to himself and others. By Irby's own admission, he does not necessarily believe he needs medication for his mental health issues.

Coffey attributed Irby's sometimes scattered answers to him not being used to being outside prison.

“He hasn't been out in the real world in a very long time — he's been in prison for 48 years. He was nervous about just being in the courtroom,” he said. “If a doctor states that he needs medication, he said he will take medication, and he will comply with whatever he's told to do on parole.”

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519, mguza@tribweb.com or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.

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