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August 26, 2012

Another local perspective on another state juve LWOP sentence Miller could impact

It has now been almost exactly two months since the Supreme Court declared that mandatory LWOP for juvenile murderers is constitutionally problematic.  And though I know of no full resentencings that have yet taken place in the wake of Miller, there have been lots of reports on juvenile offenders serving LWOP who might get some relief due to the ruling.  This lengthy local story from Pennsylvania, headlined "New fate for young killers?," provide just such a report and merits a full read.  Here are excerpts:

In 1978, an 80-year-old Allentown woman was bludgeoned to death in her bedroom, her wounds so grievous that she had to have a closed coffin at her funeral.  The age of Stella Bremmer's killers was as shocking as the brutality of their crime.  They were both Dieruff High School students, the youngest a 16-year-old boy who used a metal rod to beat Bremmer.

That kid, Joseph G. Romeri, remains behind bars at 50, a state prison inmate for two-thirds of his life.  But for the first time in more than three decades, he sits in jail with realistic hope that he will one day be freed.

Under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June, it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to a mandatory term of life in prison without parole for murder, as Romeri and nearly 500 Pennsylvania prisoners were.

That means he — along with some of the Lehigh Valley's most infamous killers — could be eligible for a new sentencing hearing, and the possibility of winning a sentence that allows him the chance of release.

Romeri's case is the oldest of six in Lehigh County and one in Northampton County involving once-young murderers who were charged as adults and received life sentences. And cases like his represent the front lines of the highest court's decision: Because of how long Romeri has been incarcerated, any sentence less than life would mean he could soon be back on the streets, as Pennsylvania law never intended....

Romeri's supporters call him a model for why juveniles shouldn't receive life sentences.  In his time in prison, they say, Romeri has completed vocational and treatment programs, mentored and advocated for other inmates, and even gotten a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh.  "You learn a lot about yourself in prison because you have a lot of time for yourself," said Romeri, who "wanted to change.  I didn't want to be that person in jail."

Romeri said he would do anything to undo what he did.  But he said he still has something to offer society, with his example one that could touch troubled youths before it is too late for them.  "Back then, I was just a really dumb kid and made a lot of bad decisions and didn't care about anyone but myself," Romeri said.  "All I want is one opportunity," Romeri said.

For the family of Bremmer, a woman who lived alone, attended Mass daily and "wouldn't hurt a fly," Romeri doesn't deserve another chance.  For them, any amount of time he serves is too little for the heartbreak he caused.  They oppose his ever being released, saying the only thing cruel and unusual was the crime he committed....

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-based group says.  The Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia puts Pennsylvania's number closer to 480, including one inmate in Graterford state prison who has spent 59 years behind bars.

But what each of those prisoners can now expect remains unanswered.  The Supreme Court didn't establish guidelines for how states should proceed in light of its ruling.  It didn't even specifically say its decision was retroactive, though attorneys on both sides of the issue say they believe it is....

Bremmer was slain Nov. 9, 1978, after surprising Romeri during a burglary at her Oak Street home in which he and his co-defendant, 17-year-old Michael Reinhard, got away with $10 to $20, police said....  Reinhard pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to nine to 20 years.  He was released from prison in 1988, having spent 91/2 years behind bars.

In Reinhard's case, returning to the streets was not a problem.  He completed his sentence on Nov. 13, 1998 — 20 years to the day from his arrest — without ever violating the conditions of his parole, records from the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole show.

Some related posts on Miller:

August 26, 2012 at 10:32 PM | Permalink


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I'm glad that at least a few courts are taking note at the insanity that is juvenile life sentences. Now if only someone would take a closer look at the prosecutors themselves: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2012/08/22/ado-prosecutorial-misconduct-queens-district-attorney-edition/

Posted by: Jonah Falcon | Aug 27, 2012 1:55:25 AM

My reaction to this case is one of indifference to the fate of this killer. From the news article, it looks like he probably could be released with little or no danger to society. But if he's not released, so what? A killer stays behind bars. He doesn't deserve a chance--he gave that up the moment he decided to kill a defenseless old woman. If he is given mercy, I hope he lives a productive life.

One thing I don't like about all of this is that Miller is going to give us less and less harshness with these killers. 20-25 years is going to be the new normal with these guys, and, mark my words, in some jurisdictions, the presumption will be release at that point in time. And the innocent will pay a price in blood. It is harsh to keep this particular killer in prison for more time. But harsh treatment of killers is not a bad thing.

I still don't understand why the label "parole" now has constitutional meaning. If someone had a chance for executive clemency (even in LWOP situations), then I would think that Miller should be satisfied. How does the identity of the decisionmaker matter when it comes to whether a guy can get released?

Posted by: federalist | Aug 27, 2012 1:06:28 PM

An interested English observer here. Any stab at why the proposition that the system ought to be authorised to re-evaluate for possible release offenders after many years (frankly, even in the case of most adult murder), which is generally accepted in Europe, is so controversial in the United States? From our perspective, this seems like a bit of an easy one. Obviously there is no requirement that any particular murder resulting in a life sentence must be released, but why the extraordinarily strong view that the possibility should be absolutely precluded, whatever the later circumstances? Any thoughts on why the system in the United States is so fundamentally different from almost all others on this point? I notice a lot of attention in the press to what the victims' families think, but not a lot of examination regarding why that that should be particularly relevant. Thanks.

Posted by: Alex | Aug 27, 2012 5:01:53 PM

Because Alex, we have a history of people committing murder, getting out, and committing all sorts of heinous crimes afterwards. We tend to have the view that killers shouldn't get a second go of it.

And the idea that the wishes of the victims' families is not particularly relevant is a morally obtuse one. What sort of society thinks that some victims shouldn't get the comfort knowing that the person who took away their loved one won't ever get out? Germany released a known terrorist murderer after a scant 17 years in prison. Where is European outrage over something like that?

Posted by: federalist | Aug 27, 2012 5:11:24 PM

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