States left to deal with juvenile life-sentence ruling
Nearly 23 years after Pittsburgh Allderdice High School senior Karen Hurwitz was strangled and stabbed in the backyard of her Squirrel Hill home by a teenage friend, her parents agonized that a U.S. Supreme Court decision this week could set her killer free.
Michale Anderson was 17 when he murdered Hurwitz and is 39 now. He's serving a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for first-degree murder for the Oct. 27, 1989, killing, but the court ruling barred such sentences for juveniles.
“We're fully confident that in this particular case there can only be one sentence. In my mind, he remains a threat to us and others should he be freed,” said her father, Dr. Dennis Hurwitz, 66, of Squirrel Hill. “We cope (with the grief) by not absorbing ourselves with it. We avoid thinking about it. It truly opens up old wounds. It would be much worse if it came to a new judicial process.”
Hurwitz's family, prosecutors, public defenders and the incarcerated killers are waiting to learn how the decision will affect hundreds of cases dating back several decades.
There are at least 373 people statewide — and at least 55 from Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties — who could be reconsidered after the high court's 5-4 decision in Miller v. Alabama. The court found mandatory life terms without parole for those younger than 18 violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” The ruling didn't bar life sentences for juveniles, but it tossed out the mandatory life-without-parole sentencing practice used in states such as Pennsylvania.
The Department of Corrections said its data tallied only cases where the defendant was a juvenile at the time of sentencing, and there are other cases in which killers committed their crimes when juveniles and were sentenced after they turned 18. Juvenile justice groups said the number of affected cases in Pennsylvania is about 480.
Word spreading in prison
Word of the Supreme Court ruling has spread in prison, said Iris Nelson-Rentag, 49, of White Oak, whose son, Isaiah Hereford, now 19, is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole. Hereford was 17 in 2010 when he participated in a fatal robbery at a McKeesport birthday party that left three people slain. He was convicted of three counts of second-degree murder but continues to maintain his innocence.
“They had made an announcement in a church service, but Isaiah didn't believe it at first. When I talked to him (on the phone), he said, ‘Is it true mom?' ” Nelson-Rentag said. “I'm absolutely overjoyed — not only for the sake of every juvenile who was possibly wrongly convicted, or even if they did it — because they'll have a chance to come out. However it works out, anything is better than life without parole.” Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Philadelphia-based juvenile law center, said the court's decision recognizes that “kids are really different than adult offenders.”
“Juveniles have the capacity for rehabilitation and transition that adult offenders don't have,” Levick said. “Adolescence by nature is a period of change. Changes from teenagers to people in their 20s are quite profound. There has to be room in the sentencing structure for growth, maturity and rehabilitation.”
Some of those inmates whose cases will be affected have been in prison for decades.
William Hines, now 57, is serving a life sentence for the 1970 murder of Sacred Heart High School student Eileen Taylor. Hines, then 15, was sentenced to life in prison in September 1970 for sexually assaulting, beating and stabbing Taylor.
“Some of these juveniles are already predators,” said retired Pittsburgh police Detective Ron Freeman, a longtime homicide investigator who took Hines' confession. “Some of them should never be out. (Hines) is a violent, angry person.”
No guidelines given
How the decision will play out across Pennsylvania remains unclear. The high court did not issue guidelines to the states on how to deal with the issue. Judges and lawyers said they expect defense attorneys to begin filing motions in the coming weeks seeking new sentences for their clients.
“We are in the process of pulling all the cases and reaching out to the families of the victims to let them know about the ruling and what the potential impact could be,” said Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
Spokesmen for the state parole board and Gov. Tom Corbett declined to comment, saying their offices were still reviewing the decision and its effects.
“The cases have to come back to the trial judges. I think we're going to have petitions fairly quickly,” said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman. “The sentences will be vacated. There will likely be a hearing (in each case) on the all of the factors.”
Defense attorneys such as Michael DeMatt are planning appeals. He represents Angela Marinucci, now 19, who was convicted of first-degree murder in Westmoreland County for the torture slaying of mentally handicapped Jennifer Daugherty. Marinucci was five months shy of her 18th birthday when authorities charged her with the Feb. 11, 2010, killing.
“No one from the family ever wants to see her get out,” said Bobby Murphy, Daugherty's stepfather. “If she had done the crime when she was 18, the family would have pushed for the death penalty.”
Westmoreland District Attorney John Peck said he will seek to ensure the life sentence remains in place.
“They were all extremely brutal cases. Jurors were aware they were imposing life sentences. I think that was an appropriate sentence, and I would press that the life sentences be imposed again,” Peck said.
Hearing set in Harrisburg
Allegheny County's Chief Public Defender Elliot Howsie said his office's appellate division is discussing what needs to be done next and recognizes the issue will fall to his office to start the process for inmates who lack resources to hire private counsel.
“It's going to cause us to be under the gun, and we're going to work hard to file the appropriate paperwork. The juveniles that received life would have to be brought before each judge,” Howsie said. “I think the Supreme Court got it right. Judges should have discretion.”
Howsie cautioned against over-optimism for those in prison.
“The reality is that the judge can still come back and say, ‘I can't give you a mandatory life sentence, but I can give you enough years that you'll never get out,' ” Howsie said.
State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County and chairman of Judiciary Committee, scheduled a public hearing July 12 in Harrisburg to discuss what lawmakers need to do in the wake of the ruling. He hopes to have a bill in the Senate by September.
“The purpose is to explore all the alternatives. Some juveniles (serving life) weren't present when the killing occurred; some were involved in it. We're striving to accomplish something where judges can take those factors into consideration and give them some options,” Greenleaf said. “We may have life with parole or something else. There may be a line of options. Each case is different.”
A shock to victims
Vera Dunmire, 82, of Kiskiminetas Township in Armstrong County, can't believe the ruling could affect the sentence of the man who killed her son Larry.
“It can't be true. It can't be true. That's all,” she said. “I just can't believe that (the court) would do something like that. For murder and the way he was murdered. ... It was terrible. And they want to get out early. They don't deserve it.”
James A. Provitt, 28, of New Kensington was found guilty in 2003 of the first-degree murder and robbery of Larry Dunmire, 48, of Kiskiminetas Township. Accomplice Bryan Chambers, now 27, was convicted of second-degree murder. Both were 17 when police arrested them. His killers dumped Dunmire along a road in Bell Township in Westmoreland County, after shooting him 14 times and hitting him with a blunt object as many as 30 times.
“The court decision recognizes the immaturity and lack of judgment of a juvenile,” said Provitt's lawyer Tim Dawson. “It's a harsher punishment than for an adult.”
Dunmire doesn't see it that way.
“They were old enough to smoke and everything else. Why would they be too young for murder?” Dunmire said. “They should be put away for life. They don't deserve getting out early or cutting down their time in prison. They gave him no time. I just don't agree with it.”
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Rich Cholodofsky can be reached at 724-830-6293 or email@example.com.