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Juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania lose appeal to high court

| Monday, June 9, 2014, 12:57 p.m.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal over whether juveniles sentenced to life in prison before a 2012 change in the law can seek new sentences.

But Bobbi Jamriska isn't convinced its decision is the final word.

In 1993, Maurice Bailey of Crafton Heights, then 16, fatally beat and stabbed Jamriska's sister, Kristina Grill, 15, and received life imprisonment.

“It's good that it's going to hold for now, but this whole experience has taught me that it's just for now,” said Jamriska, 42, of Shaler. “This doesn't feel like the end to me.”

Several legal experts, including lawyers involved with the case, agreed.

“We still feel like this is an issue that will need to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court at some point,” said Emily Keller of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which appealed Ian Cunningham's sentencing to the high court. “There are many cases in the pipeline and many states considering this issue.”

Cunningham of Philadelphia was found guilty of shooting a man to death during a robbery in 1999 when he was 17.

Hugh J. Burns Jr., chief of the appellate unit for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office who represented the office in the Cunningham case, said he expects the Supreme Court to “someday” address the merits of the issue.

In 2012, the court gave trial judges discretion over whether to sentence juveniles to life terms.

The court did not say whether the law should be applied retroactively to as many as 2,000 juvenile lifers across the country, opening the door to appeal.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the idea of applying it retroactively with a 4-3 vote in November, joining Louisiana and Minnesota.

“When they made the ruling, I thought that was going to be the end,” said Jamriska, who said she hoped it would have brought closure to herself and others. “Now, until somebody tells me with certainty this will be the end, this just feels like a stop on the way.”

High courts in Illinois, Texas, Nebraska, Iowa, Massachusetts and Mississippi have ruled the law should apply to earlier cases.

Pennsylvania has 462 juvenile lifers, more than any other state, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Forty-eight lifers are from Allegheny County.

A spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office declined comment, other than to say the office believes the decision should not apply retroactively.

Steven Townsend, a Pittsburgh lawyer representing Jeffrey Cristina, 55, who was 17 years old in 1976 when sentenced to life without parole for second-degree murder and robbery, said the court's decision to not hear the appeal “was a little upsetting.”

“His light just got a little dimmer, but it's not out,” Townsend said.

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

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