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September 12, 2012

Pennsylvania Supreme Court hearing arguments on (first?) major Miller retroactivity cases

20120911_dn_0m9u8fulAs reported in this brief local article, the "Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear arguments on two cases today that could determine the fate of juveniles serving mandatory life without parole sentences." Here are the basics:

Pennsylvania has nearly 500 juvenile lifers -- the largest number in any one state. “A lot of the juvenile lifers who are currently serving the sentence have currently filed post conviction petitions.” Juvenile Law Center attorney Emily Keller says...

[T]he Pennsylvania Supreme Court must decide whether to apply Miller retroactively and, if so, what new sentence should apply. If the case applies to past cases, some of the inmates could eventually be released. “Some of the clients that we represent have been serving these sentences for decades and really have come to terms with what they have done and have really matured as people.”

She says one example is 61-year-old Sharon Wiggins.   “She was convicted of a murder that occurred in 1968,” says Keller.  “She’s the longest serving female inmate in the state of Pennsylvania. She’s gotten jobs while she’s been incarcerated, she’s been a mentor for other juvenile mentors for other women incarcerated at SCI Muncy.”

The Commonwealth argues that Miller should apply only to future cases and the new sentence should be life without parole or life with parole.

This much lengthier local article from this past weekend provides more background on defendant Wiggins under the headline "Ruling of a lifetime: Pa. woman, grown old in prison, could be set free." I have reprinted with this post that article's picture of Wiggins, who is obviously now a long way from being a "teenage offender."

I cannot yet find copies of the briefs filed in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on this important and consequential issue; I will be grateful if any reader could help get them sent them my way (or put links in the comments if they are already available on-line). 

As I explained in a series of prior posts right after the Miller ruling (some of which are linked below), whether and how Miller can and should be applied to long-ago sentenced juvenile murderers is an intricate and multi-layered legal question.  I sincerely hope the Justices on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court are getting a lot of help sorting these issues out thoroughly from the parties and others in these cases: especially if this court issues a major ruling soon, its template for sorting through these matters could impact many cases nationwide as well as in the Keystone State.  (As indicated in the title of this post, I am pretty sure (but not certain) that these cases are the first set of post-Miller petitions to get full examination by a state Supreme Court.)

Some related posts on Miller and its potential impact in PA and eslewhere:

September 12, 2012 at 09:59 AM | Permalink


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Sharon Wiggins has done very well. But inside the structured setting of prison walls and under supervision. It may be a disservice to release her to the horrible streets from which she came. She may end up dead or worse, relapsed into substance abuse or criminal conduct.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 13, 2012 7:00:24 PM

It looks like Kuntrell Jackson's conviction was "final" -- affirmed on appeal in 359 Ark. 87 (2004), and no cert petition thereafter. (Filed state habeas in 2008.) Does this mean that the Supremes implicitly ruled on retroactivity; or can they assume the issue away if the State doesn't raise it?

Posted by: ungrateful biped | Sep 14, 2012 9:15:47 AM

I think so, but the Michigan Attorney General's office is arguing that there was a Teague v Lane waiver by the state's conduct. He claims that because Louisiana never invoked Teague, the decision is not precedental on this point. I think he is wrong. The Court was not required to accept the waiver and the Chief Justice's number presume full retroactivity. As to the waiver law, consider these quotes and cases:

"Wilkerson claims that the state waived the retroactivity defense. Because Griffith 's nonretroactivity doctrine is nonjurisdictional, Collins v. Youngblood, 497 U.S. 37, 40-41, 110 S.Ct. 2715, 2718, 111 L.Ed.2d 30 (1990), a state can waive the defense by not raising it. Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389, ---- n. 8, 113 S.Ct. 2680, 2685 n. 8, 125 L.Ed.2d 321 (1993); see also Schiro v. Farley, 510 U.S. 222, ---- - ----, 114 S.Ct. 783, 788-89, 127 L.Ed.2d 47 (1994). Nevertheless, in Schiro the Court acknowledged that it would have discretion to reach the retroactivity issue, as the state may rely upon any legal argument in support of the judgment. Id. at ----, 114 S.Ct. at 788 (citing Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 475 n. 6, 90 S.Ct. 1153, 1156-57 n. 6, 25 L.Ed.2d 491 (1970)).

10 It is true that the state failed to raise this issue in its original brief and failed to attend oral argument before the panel. Nonetheless, we elect to reach the retroactivity issue, first because we have discretion to do so, and second because it was the primary reason given by the district court for its judgment. This case has been about retroactivity from its inception; this question demands resolution."

Wilkerson v Whitley, 28 F3d 498, 504 (CA 5 1994), cert den 513 US 1085 (1995). See also Albrecht v Horn, 485 F3d 103 (CA 3, 2007). The Michigan briefs (including the Attorney General's can be found here: http://www.crimapp.com/carp.


Posted by: Stuart Friedman | Oct 16, 2012 7:08:02 AM

I just graduated from cosmetology school that Sharon wiggins talked me into. I was in Muncy in 2008 an was in the drug an alcohol program called the wings of life. I used to do her hair an she always told me how good I was an I can change I should go to school I could do it. She was a peer assistant in the program I don't know what word to use to explain her, intelligent,helpful,caring, I think she's amazing an wonderful. She works so hard to make you realize what your doing wrong why I do the things I do an how to change my thinking an be more positive to live life as a good example an do the next right thing an if I do good an live right that good things will come just hold on. She deserves a second chance.

Posted by: Tanya | Oct 24, 2012 10:20:44 PM

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