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Court to get pivotal cases on juveniles

| Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, 7:50 a.m.

Two arguments before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court next month will “set the framework” for how judges will handle cases regarding mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders, attorneys said Tuesday.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June found mandatory life terms without parole for those younger than 18 violate 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. It also left a void on how state courts are to handle appeals, an issue the state Supreme Court hopes to address during oral arguments Sept. 12 for two men sentenced to life without parole.

“The state Supreme Court now has an opportunity to look at what Pennsylvania does and set the framework for all cases in the future,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. “We know that what they did in the past was wrong and unconstitutional. They now have to respect the kind of individual decision-making the U.S. Supreme Court has demanded.”

The state Department of Corrections lists 373 inmates — at least 55 from Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties — who were younger than 18 at the time they were sentenced. A March report by The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group in Washington, said Pennsylvania had the most juvenile lifers of any state.

Under Pennsylvania law, a first-degree murder conviction can result only in the death penalty or life without parole. A second-degree murder conviction carries an automatic sentence of life without parole.

Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia who represents one of the two men whose cases the Supreme Court will hear, said the cases represent the range of those that will be heard in Pennsylvania.

One case concerns lifers who have exhausted direct appeals and want to bring up the high court's ruling as a new matter. The other case is a direct appeal of a sentence.

Burkoff said the state Legislature also may weigh in and that between the Legislature and the court, the two bodies will define the process.

“One will do something and the other will react, and sometime in the next year or two we'll have a process,” Burkoff said.

From there, trial courts will be able to restart the sentencing process, Burkoff said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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