State Supreme Court ruling stops possible parole for juvenile murderers
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that juvenile murderers who were automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole will not be resentenced if their cases were final before June 2012.
In a 4-3 ruling split along party lines, the long-awaited decision by the Republican-heavy court means that roughly 460 inmates in Pennsylvania prisons may never get parole.
“It is the Commonwealth's core position that (an) appellant's claim must be decided under the law as it stood at the time his conviction became final,” Justice Thomas G. Saylor wrote in the majority opinion. Saylor was joined by Justices J. Michael Eakin, Correale F. Stevens and Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille.
In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for offenders under the age of 18 violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because they fail to take into account the unique characteristics of young offenders, including their “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”
Pennsylvania's highest court upheld that ruling in March by vacating the sentence of a Northampton County man convicted of killing a man when he was 14 and sending the case back to a lower court for resentencing.
They did not rule on whether their decision would apply to cases that were still on appeal.
The case before the state Supreme Court — argued last August — involved Ian Cunningham, a Philadelphia man who was 17 in 1999 when he shot and killed a man during a robbery. He was convicted of second-degree murder in 2002 and received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.
In the minority opinion, Justice Max Baer — joined by Justices Debra Todd and Seamus McCaffery — said the ruling should apply retroactively, but noted it “should not be interpreted as a suggestion that life without parole should not be imposed on this appellant or any other juvenile murder.”
The decision should be “in the discretion of a trial judge observing the facts of the case and the characteristics of the defendant to determine whether life without parole is appropriate,” they said.
Dan Fitzsimmons, chief trial deputy for the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, said he supported the court's decision, saying resentencing would reopen the wounds of victims' families. “This is great solace to victims' families that they don't have to be put through that.”
Legal experts said the case is likely bound for the U.S. Supreme Court as courts in other states have allowed the retroactivity.
“The fact that there is mixed law in the states and mixed law in the lower courts only heightens the probability that the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve this conflict,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. “This isn't the end of the issue. I'm sure it will go up.”
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.