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Ruling gives juvenile offenders new hope

| Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

For 37 years, Richard Lee “Ricky” Olds has believed he would be released from prison.

Inmate No. AP5288 at SCI Somerset turns 52 next month.

“And then after so many years go by, the only thing is — will I live long enough?” said Olds, who on Monday becomes the fourth so-called “juvenile lifer” from Allegheny or Westmoreland counties to be considered for a reduced sentence.

Olds was 14 when police arrested and jailed him in November 1979.

They charged him and a 16-year-old co-defendant in connection with the shooting death of postal worker Thomas Beitler a month earlier outside Fort Wayne Cigar Store on Pittsburgh's North Side. Olds testified at trial that he thought his co-defendant, Roderick Todd Allen, was joking when he suggested a robbery at the store.

Olds bought a bag of potato chips. When his friend pointed a pistol at Beitler outside the all-night convenience store, Olds testified that he ran.

Allen pulled the trigger.

Seventeen months following his arrest, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Samuel Strauss sentenced Olds, then 16, after a jury convicted him of second-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy.

The judge, who died in 1995, pointed out that the court had “no leeway as to the disposition that we are compelled to make,” and sentenced Olds to “undergo imprisonment for a period of your natural life.”

Olds recalled his disbelief that he would spend the rest of his days behind bars. “But I thought that somehow, some way, something would happen,” he said.

Olds gave permission for his Philadelphia-based attorney, Marc Bookman, to record his answers to questions from the Tribune-Review.

“He's far less bitter and angry than I am,” said Bookman, who is director of The Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. “He's done remarkably well in prison. He's an intelligent, literate adult who has achieved a lot under horrible circumstances.”

High court's impact

The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for inmates like Olds to seek new sentences by ruling their punishments unconstitutional.

An estimated 2,000 inmates nationwide are serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed while they were juveniles.

Pennsylvania has 514 — the most in the country. About 480 are eligible to have their sentences reconsidered, though few have been released or resentenced.

More than 60 percent, or 323, of Pennsylvania's juvenile lifers have served at least 20 years of their sentence, according to Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.

“It really puts us at the epicenter of this issue,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, deeming their adult sentences “cruel and unusual punishments.”

In January, the court ruled that the prohibition was retroactive and applied to long-closed cases — including the one involving Olds.

Despite the high-court rulings, many Pennsylvania counties have delayed scheduling hearings to resentence inmates until the state Supreme Court answers procedural questions, said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

She said about a third of the state's juvenile lifers were convicted of second-degree murder, which means a death occurred during the commission of another felony, such as robbery. The charge applies to an accomplice and carries a mandatory life sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court's most recent decision has an even greater impact in those cases, Levick said.

“It's really hard to justify keeping that group of individuals ... in prison for decades,” she said.

Levick estimated that fewer than a dozen Pennsylvania inmates have been resentenced. Five have been released on parole in eastern Pennsylvania and a sixth in Tioga County had his sentence commuted, according to a corrections department spokeswoman.

Help at the state level

If released, juvenile lifers who have spent their adulthood incarcerated face challenges to reintegrate into society.

“You're in prison for decades. You have had all your meals provided to you, received health care,” Wetzel said. “You didn't have to cross the street.”

In response, the corrections department has prioritized programs for those inmates and coordinates group sessions with friends and family members.

“We have some who have been in three, four decades,” Wetzel said. “I think we have a responsibility to get them up to be successful if they get out.”

There's also a responsibility to victims' families, said Jennifer Storm, the state's victim advocate.

She said her office has seen varied responses about the Supreme Court rulings from surviving family members.

“What we have heard and seen ... is just outrage and anger and frustration and a sense of betrayal,” Storm said.

Her office has been explaining to families what parole and supervision would entail, while noting a prisoner's record, “to give them a better picture of who that person is walking out the door,” Storm said.

Resentencing preparation

Defense attorneys should essentially make a presentation on an inmate's life from a variety of sources and time periods, said Levick of the Juvenile Law Center. That means a lot of preparation.

“Experts need to be involved, and resources need to be made available by the courts,” she said.

Attorney Steve Townsend spent hours gathering information about the life of 58-year-old Jeffrey Cristina before prison and during his 40 years behind bars.

“There was a lot more that went on behind the scenes,” he said.

Christina was 16 when he and two co-defendants in December 1975 robbed Frank Slazinski inside his apartment in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood. They took $15 and a portable television.

Slazinski, 83, died four days later.

Christina said he went along with the robbery in hopes of ending the bullying from a co-defendant.

For his resentencing hearing in August, Townsend wanted to show that Cristina had been rehabilitated and has a plan for release.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani gave him the chance to be released by imposing a new sentence of 20 years to life.

Cristina is appealing, however.

Though a parole board this month could release him from prison, Cristina does not want to be under state supervision for life, Townsend said.

Another juvenile lifer who is appealing her resentencing is Angela Marinucci, a 24-year-old convicted of working with five co-defendants in the February 2010 torture-murder of mentally challenged Jennifer Daugherty. The group held the 30-year-old woman captive in her Greensburg apartment, where they beat and killing her.

Marinucci was 17.

Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway last year stuck with the original life sentence. A state appellate court last month upheld the decision.

Olds is optimistic for his hearing Monday before Judge David Cashman in Pittsburgh. Bookman hopes his client's relationship with the criminal justice system ends with his release.

“That would be a just resolution to an extraordinarily unjust situation,” Bookman said.

Kim William Riester, who prosecuted Olds, sent a letter to Cashman asking the judge to consider reducing the original sentence because he feels life imprisonment in this case is “unjust.”

A plea agreement to third-degree homicide that originally was offered and rejected carried a recommended sentence of 10 to 20 years, Riester wrote in the letter, a copy of which was provided to the Tribune-Review.

A spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office declined to comment before the hearing.

While in prison, Olds has learned computer programs, taught sports-officiating classes and earned college credits in math and foreign languages. He hopes Cashman will see him as a person when determining a new sentence.

“I just hope that they're able to put everything aside and look at me as me,” he said. “I know it's a hard thing because they don't know me. But I just hope that can happen.”

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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