ShareThis Page

High court strikes down mandatory life sentences for juveniles

| Monday, June 25, 2012, 10:59 p.m.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down mandatory life sentences for juveniles, a ruling that will have major implications for Pennsylvania, which has nearly 400 prisoners serving life terms without the chance of parole for crimes they committed as youths.

There are 44 such prisoners who were sentenced in homicide cases that occurred in one of the Alle-Kiski Valley's four counties.

The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Miller v. Alabama found such mandatory life terms without parole for those younger than 18 violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishments," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.

Joining Kagan in the majority were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer. Dissenting were Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.

Victim advocate groups criticized the ruling.

"It's not about vengeance. It's about what's just," said Bobbi Jamriska, 41, of Shaler, vice president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. "Someone who can do that will never be a functioning member of society."

In 1993, Maurice Bailey of Pittsburgh, then 16, fatally beat and stabbed Jamriska's pregnant sister, Kristina Grill, 15. Bailey was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

"Many of us never thought we'd have to go back to court to re-engage with these people," said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, president of the group, whose sister, brother-in-law and their unborn child were killed by a juvenile 22 years ago in suburban Chicago. "For many people, they're going to have to relive the worst event of their lives 10, 20, 30 years later."

The high court overturned the mandatory life sentence of Evan Miller, who was 14 when he beat his neighbor to death and set his trailer on fire.

The ruling did not give specify how states should remedy the sentences.

Juveniles charged with homicide in Pennsylvania are eligible to stand trial as adults, and those convicted of first- and second-degree murder are mandated to serve life terms.

Next course of action undetermined

Mark H. Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, said the situation regarding the 373 inmates is unclear.

"There is a need for much more review" in Harrisburg, Bergstrom said.

The Legislature likely will play a key role, he said.

Legal experts agree the lack of direction from the court leaves open the possibility of the Legislature's stepping in to decide alternative penalties or the state Supreme Court's laying out procedures on how the cases will be handled.

"This will certainly affect people in Pennsylvania -- a lot of people are currently serving life -- but it stops short of saying what has to be done next," said Bruce Antkowiak, who heads the criminology and law program at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. "Basically, you cannot have mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles. You have to have some system in place that takes into account the youth of the defendant.

"The question is: What does it default to?

"It doesn't mean prison doors will be flying open across Pennsylvania."

University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said the decision follows recent ones by the high court that carve out juvenile exceptions in the law holding that the cruel and unusual punishment clause bars capital punishment for children and bars life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children convicted of non-homicide offenses.

"Children are simply different from adults. That's the court's point. They are different from adults both in the ways that they can be influenced and in their potential for change," Burkoff said.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the Legislature will likely hold hearings to come up with a process or let the Parole Board set a standard.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said the Legislature must tackle the issue.

"The remedy is to rewrite the statute and allow them to ask for parole," Manning said.

"As far as how individual cases affected by (the) decision will be reviewed, our office will be working closely with the courts and with the defense bar to determine those procedures," Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said in a written statement.

One of the local cases

Among the state's 373 inmates serving life terms for murders they committed as juveniles are two New Kensington men convicted of the murder of a Kiski Township man 11 years ago.

Larry "L.D." Dunmire was brutally beaten and shot at least 14 times in Kiski Township. His body was later found in Bell Township on June 14, 2001.

On the same day, three 17-year-old youths and three young women, all in their 20s, were charged.

When the cases went to court two years later, James. A. "Jim-Jim" Provitt, originally of Macon, Ga., and briefly New Kensington, was found guilty of first-degree murder. Bryan L. "Phibes" Chambers of New Kensington was found guilty of second-degree murder.

Both were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

John Grant Smith of Arnold also also found guilty of third-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison.

The women testified against the youths and were sentenced to five years in prison.

That continues to rankle Tim Dawson, an Adamsburg attorney who represented Provitt.

"This decision is long overdue," he said. "Once again, Justice Kennedy was the swing vote. Dawson said Provitt was brought into the crime by Chambers and the other youth "as the muscle" for what was to be a robbery.

Attempts to reach the Chambers and Provitt families were unsuccessful.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck on Monday said, "Provitt, Chambers and Smith were offered the same plea agreements, but they refused to testify."

In exchange for their 2003 testimony, Kimberly Trentin, Dayna Kocinski, and Sarah Rattigan had second-degree murder charges reduced. They served five years in state prison and were released.

Peck said he respects the Supreme Court ruling, but he believes the Supreme Court "fails to acknowledge that a jury's decision is not solely imposed by the General Assembly."

"The jury, itself, is a filter in these cases," he said.

In Dunmire case, "the jury was aware that conviction of first- or second-degree murder would bring a life sentence without parole," Peck said.

Attorney Jerome Tierney of Irwin represented Chambers in the case and will ask if he wants his services again.

"If he does, I will file a motion with the sentencing Judge (John) Blahovec for at least a re-sentencing for Bryan" and possibility of parole, Tierney said.

Tierney said he challenged the automatic no-parole possible provision for first-degree murder for Chambers, who was 19 when he was sentenced in 2003.

"It didn't get anywhere. Now the Supreme Court has ruled. We'll have to see how it playes out," he said.

"One way or another, Bryan Chambers needs to be re-sentenced," he said.

Chuck Biedka can be reached at 724-226-4711 or Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or

Juveniles serving life sentences

Here's a look at the number of juveniles who were convicted of murder and who are serving life sentences in the four-county area, plus Philadelpihia, where 55 percent of the state's cases occurred:

• Armstrong: 0

• Butler: 2

• Westmoreland: 2

• Allegheny: 40

• Philadelphia: 207

• Statewide: 373

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.