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Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling brings hope to those convicted of murder as juveniles

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Life sentences

The number of juveniles who were convicted of murder and are serving life sentences in four Western Pennsylvania counties, plus Philadelphia, where 55 percent of such cases in the state occurred:

• Armstrong: 0

• Butler: 2

• Westmoreland: 2

• Allegheny: 40

• Philadelphia: 207

• Statewide: 373 (as of June 2012)

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

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Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

A state Supreme Court decision has given hope to hundreds of Pennsylvania inmates sentenced as juveniles to life without parole that they could one day be released from prison.

The state Supreme Court on March 26 vacated the sentence and ordered the resentencing of Qu'eed Batts, a Northampton County man who was 14 when he walked up the front steps of a house and shot two men, one fatally.

The Batts decision, a response to the June 25 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sentencing juveniles to life without parole violates their constitutional rights, has reverberated throughout Pennsylvania prisons, home to roughly 400 juvenile lifers.

“If the light of hope had been extinguished in these cases, this decision clearly relit that light,” said David Chontos, who 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.

The Batts decision means that cases that were on direct appeal when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling must be remanded back to the trial judge so the court can set a minimum sentence. The maximum will remain life in prison.

“The Batts decision was a win for prosecutors statewide,” said Dan Filler, a law professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who specializes in juvenile justice. “Under this ruling, there is the possibility that some kids will get out of jail, but the decision will be left up to trial judges.”

The ruling rejected the stance taken by the Juvenile Law Center that youths serving life terms should be resentenced for third-degree murder and dismissed the center's argument that life without parole for juvenile killers should be banned altogether, said Emily Keller, a staff attorney at the Philadelphia legal nonprofit.

Although the decision affects only a small number of cases statewide — Keller estimates 20 to 30 — it laid the foundation for the court's ruling in another case, Commonwealth v. Cunningham, that will address whether the Batts decision applies to cases closed before June 25.

“The decision of the vast majority of those cases will have to await the state Supreme Court's decision in Cunningham,” said Dan Fitzsimmons, chief trial deputy for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

Juveniles convicted of murder after June 25 fall under new sentencing guidelines Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law in October. The law stipulates that individuals younger than 15 at the time of the offense may be sentenced to life without parole, or a minimum of 25 years to life in prison. Those between ages 15 and 18 will face a minimum of 35 years in prison.

If Cunningham becomes retroactive, Keller said some inmates who have already served “very long sentences” may immediately become eligible for parole.

“We may not have to wait 30 years to see how this plays out,” she 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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