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March 26, 2013

Pennsylvania Supreme Court addresses Miller's impact for some of its state's juvenile murderers

As reported in this local news article, headlined "Supreme Court: Juvenile killer to get new sentencing,"  Pennsylvania's top court handed down today a long-awaited ruling concerning the sentencing of juvenile offenders in the Keystone State.  Here are the basics via this news report:

Teenage killer Qu'eed Batts will receive a new sentencing hearing for the gang-ordered murder he committed in Easton when he was 14, but he could still end up spending the rest of his life in prison nonetheless.

That's what advocates on both sides of Batts' case said Tuesday following a long-anticipated Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on how the state should address Batts and nearly 500 other once-youthful murderers whose automatic life without parole sentences were declared unconstitutional last year by the nation's highest court.

Given the federal ruling that such sentences are cruel and unusual punishment, Batts must be given a new sentencing hearing in which he receives a maximum sentence of life and a minimum sentence determined by the judge, said the opinion by Justice Thomas Saylor.

But what that minimum sentence might be was unanswered by court, with advocates for juveniles acknowledging that it probably could still be a life sentence, or a prison term that is so long that it is, in essence, life.  "That could be anything," said Robert Schwartz, the executive director of the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia, which argued on behalf of Batts.  "It appears that it also could be a minimum of life.  There is absolutely nothing to guide [the sentencing judge's] discretion."

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court addressed an issue that it struggled with during oral arguments in September: What to do over the fate of Batts and other juveniles murderers serving a now-unconstitutional sentence.  The court rejected the stance taken by the Juvenile Law Center: that youths serving life terms should be resentenced under the charge of third-degree murder, which can bring at most 20 to 40 years in prison.

Northampton County First Deputy District Attorney Terence Houck said the ruling was a victory for prosecutors that leaves open the possibility that Batts should never be released, as Houck plans to argue at resentencing.  "All they are saying is that there has to be a minimum.  That minimum can be 150 years," Houck said, adding: "I don't think Batts should ever get out.  He's the poster boy for life in prison."  Batts, now 21, shot to death 16-year-old Clarence Edwards and wounded 18-year-old Cory Hilario in 2006 in the West Ward....

Under state law, murders in the first and second degree must result in a life sentence, with no other punishment possible — the exact scenario the nation's top court deemed unconstitutional for those under 18....

Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of juveniles jailed for life, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which opposes that penalty.  Pennsylvania has 444 such inmates, followed by Michigan at 346 and Louisiana at 332, the Washington, D.C.-based group says.  The Juvenile Law Center puts Pennsylvania's number closer to 480, including one inmate in Graterford State Prison who has spent 59 years behind bars.

The extended majority opinion in Pennslyvania v. Batts is available at this link, and a brief concurrence is available at this link.  A quick read of the ruling suggests to me that Deputy DA Terence Houck is right to view this ruling as a victory for prosecutors: in addition to rejecting claims that the defendant should be subject to sentencing under a lesser-degree of homicide, the Batts court also rejected any claim that the Pennsylvania Constitution's prohibition of "cruel punishment" should be interpreted to give juvenile defendants any more protection than the US Constitution and its prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment."

Finally, while the news report suggests this ruling resolves the fate of all juve LWOP sentences in Pennsylvania, my quick review of the Batts opinion suggests that the ruling does not address any Miller retroactivity rulings.  For some reason, I had thought retroactivity issues were before the Pennsylvania's top court, but the Batts ruling states in its first sentence that it "concerns the appropriate remedy, on direct appeal, for the constitutional violation occurring when a mandatory life-without-parole sentence has been imposed on a defendant convicted of first-degree murder, who was under the age of eighteen at the time of his offense" (emphasis added).

How Appealing has a round up of additional press coverage concerning the Batts ruling here.

March 26, 2013 at 06:18 PM | Permalink


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/ Northampton County First Deputy District Attorney Terence Houck said the ruling was a victory for prosecutors that leaves open the possibility that Batts should never be released,... /

Good. Isn't this what liberals want, flexibility, widely variable possibilities?

E.g. ¥ Mr. Otis,
...As for discretion, any rational sentencing scheme must have discretion. the current one, post Booker, gives judges back limited discretion to fashion a reasonable sentence.

Posted by: SteveProf | Feb 5, 2013 10:07:06 AM | Feb 4, 2013 US District Judge Bennet details flaws in career offender guideline in yet another potent opinion | ¥

Posted by: Adamakis | Mar 26, 2013 7:08:45 PM

Adamakis --

What you're missing is that discretion is a good thing as long as it's exercised only in one direction, that being the direction favorable to the criminal.

On those very rare occasions when it's exercised in the other direction, it's the product of a bloodthirsty, revenge-seeking society.

Go it now?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 26, 2013 7:41:08 PM

Like i said in the other thread i have no problem with judicial discretion on a sentence. Either way. As long as the judge specifically justifies why they went either way!

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 26, 2013 11:22:54 PM

Prof. Berman - you were right that Miller retroactivity issues are before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The case is Commonwealth v. Cunningham, which was argued on the same day as Batts. Here is more information on Cunningham: http://www.juvenilelawcenter.org/legal-docket/commonwealth-pennsylvania-v-ian-cunningham

Posted by: Steve | Mar 27, 2013 12:56:07 PM

| B. Otis: ¥ "exercised only in one direction, that being the direction favorable to the criminal" ¥ |

| Walter Richardson, fired a shot that hit [Police Officer] Corr in the neck and killed him…The 4 men
combined had more than 100 felony arrests. Richardson, at age 30, had already been convicted of
killing an innocent 16-year-old girl in a drive-by shooting in Philly…He spent only 2 1/2 years in prison. |

What species of ideology would even remotely countenance 2½ years?

B. Otis:
On web sites, in canvassing locally door-to-door at election time, and even within my own kin, I have
attempted to look for practical rather than ideological partners, for those seeking the common good.
Howbeit, clearly epistemology looms large, and philosophy predicts performance.

On this site, some Progressive/Liberal commentators periodically claim that though they favour
lesser penalties for *non-violent* offences, their fervour
for strong consequences in cases of violent crime is beyond question, that is, formidable:

¥¥¥¥¥¥¥ Wash Post urges stop to "warehousing nonviolent offenders" Jul 11, 2008 ...
¥¥¥¥¥¥¥¥¥¥¥¥¥¥¥ "no matter how non-violent the crime… the real culprits are
the mandatory minimum sentences " Carmen Hernandez | Jan 26, 2013

My preliminary conclusion after 3 years in the fray is that when one investigates any given act of violence,
a certain party and a definite end of the political continuum is invariably to be found--> on the side of the offender.
Similar to the ACLU—to generalise—progressives in the legal sphere may actually side with self-evident justice, as little
as one in ten cases.

Thus, when I speak with my immediate family, uncle, aunt, and sisters, upon realising
their political choices and effects, I nearly weep for the David Corr's of the future.

Syracuse.com 3/26/13

Posted by: Adamakis | Mar 27, 2013 3:29:51 PM

\\\ see this article, excellent for an unassuming, retired cop's view (whose son was shot to death) on details of gun control issue: www.syracuse.com/news/.../David_Corr_gov_cuomos_new_gun.html \\\

-- "Corr believes a proper response to the Sandy Hook school shootings would be to take down every sign that says
the school is a gun-free zone and allow staff to be armed, at least with Tasers or guns loaded with rubber bullets."

-- "Corr believes the place to spend public money is with the agencies that are supposed to get criminals off the
street, not keeping track of the number of shotgun shells he buys or how many rounds are in his magazine."

-- "Corr said the gun used to shoot his son had already been used to kill someone in Delaware, although there
was never a formal charge."

-- -- "[1 of the 4] was also out on bail for a burglary charge in Phily when he robbed the New Hartford store. And he
was also on parole from Washington State, where they did not know he was on probation for charges in Hawaii."

/// New Hartford, NY - Four men left Philadelphia with an illegally purchased .40-caliber handgun
and a list of the stores where the Rolex USA people said they sell their watches.
They drove to New Hartford, N.Y. One man held the gun to the head of the store clerk at Lennon’s
W. B. Wilcox Jewelers, while another yelled to shoot her.
When police arrived...One of the robbers, Walter Richardson, fired a shot that hit Corr in the neck
and killed him on Feb. 27, 2006. ///

Posted by: Adamakis | Mar 27, 2013 3:36:30 PM

Adamakis --

"What species of ideology would even remotely countenance 2½ years [for the drive-by shooting death of a teenage girl]?

The species that dominates the comments section of this blog.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 27, 2013 5:09:25 PM

Now i have no problem with taking it easy with a non-violent offender. I also as i've said before have no use for repeat offenders. No matter what thier crime. Violent or non-violent!

as for this bunch!

"The 4 men
combined had more than 100 felony arrests. Richardson, at age 30, had already been convicted of
killing an innocent 16-year-old girl in a drive-by shooting in Philly…He spent only 2 1/2 years in prison."

Long before they hit 100 felony arrests...they should have been stood against a wall and SHOT!

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 28, 2013 8:34:39 PM

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