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Pennsylvania Supreme Court's juvenile sentence decision 'chaos,' legal experts say

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Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

Doreen White said she's not discouraged that her son Nicholas won't get out of prison anytime soon.

“I have to keep hope,” said White, 58, of Summit in Butler County. “I want my son to come home. I want him to be in the community and contribute to the community. I know he could be a worthwhile addition.”

Nicholas White was 17 when a judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole for killing his father, Robert Grant White, 43, in 1998 in their home along Route 356.

Last year, the Supreme Court declared such sentences unconstitutional, saying they amount to cruel and unusual punishment. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week ruled, 4-3, that the opinion does not apply retroactively to cases such as White's that were final before June 2012.

The decision means White and more than 450 Pennsylvania inmates, including as many as 40 from Allegheny County, are not eligible for resentencing.

“I can't believe that it's fair — that if your sentence came down one day, you get nothing, and if it came down the next day, you get a new hearing,” said Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia.

“But there is a silver lining here, and that is that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court does have another round of review, and that is with the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Turtle Creek attorney David Chontos. He represents Jeremy Melvin, 26, of McKeesport, who was 16 in 2005 when a Mercer County judge sentenced him to life without parole for killing a counselor at George Junior Republic, a private residential juvenile treatment center.

Several legal experts said the case likely is bound for the Supreme Court, because Iowa, Mississippi and Illinois deemed the high court's ruling retroactive, although Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan and Florida have said it is not.

“It's chaos,” said Westmoreland County attorney Jerome McTierney, who represents Bryan Lewis Chambers, a New Kensington man sentenced in 2001 to life without parole when he was 17 for the murder of a Kiski Township man. “Everybody is in absolute shock at this decision. It creates a major cloud over everyone involved.”

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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