« "How smart was Obama's 'Smart on Crime' initiative? Not very" | Main | An amusing shout-out for the US Sentencing Commission's guideline simplification efforts »

July 6, 2017

Highlighting efforts to expand Miller (and Graham?) to older "kids" in Pennsylvania

This new local article, headlined "In Philly courts, whether they'll die in prison comes down to their birthday," reports on efforts by young adult offenders to expand the Supreme Court's recent Eighth Amendment doctrines limiting severe juvenile punishments.  Here are excerpts:

In 1982, when Judge Armand Della Porta sentenced Orlando Stewart to spend the rest of his life in prison, he did it with apparent regret.  “This is the best example of how wrong mandatory sentencing is,” he said.  Stewart was the last of 10 West Philadelphia teenagers sentenced in the 1981 death of University of Pennsylvania graduate student Douglas Huffman. They’d gone out in a pack, looking for someone to rob.  One teen hit Huffman, knocking him to the pavement where he hit his head hard enough to fracture his skull. Huffman declined medical treatment, and was found dead in his bed two days later.

Seven of the teens served short sentences, some as little as a year.  Ronald Saunders, who orchestrated the attack, was sentenced to life.  But he was made eligible for parole this March after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that drew on evolving brain science to conclude juveniles are less culpable than adults, and cannot be doomed to life without parole under mandatory sentencing rules.  Charles Manor, the teen who knocked Huffman to the ground, was also made eligible for parole.

But Stewart, who never touched Huffman, won’t get a new sentence.  That’s because two months and 10 days before the crime, Stewart turned 18.  Those two months were the difference between kid and adult under the law — and between the “hope for some years of life outside prison walls” promised in that 2016 Supreme Court decision and the certainty of death in prison.

Now, appeals by 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old lifers like Stewart have begun to reach Pennsylvania’s highest court.  One was filed in June by Charmaine Pfender, who was 18 when she shot a man she says was attempting to rape her at knifepoint, killing him.  Such petitions argue that the same immaturity and impulsivity that diminish younger teens’ culpability continue well into the 20s, as a person’s brain continues to develop.  If successful, the appeals could have sweeping implications: More than half of Pennsylvania’s lifers entered the state prison system between age 18 and 25.  That’s 2,763 inmates.

These arguments appear to be gaining traction elsewhere.  An Illinois appeals court in December granted a new sentencing hearing to Antonio House, who was 19 when he participated in a gang-related killing.  And a federal judge has agreed to hear arguments in the Connecticut case of Luis Noel Cruz, who was 18 when he participated in a murder.

Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychologist specializing in brain development, says such arguments have a scientific basis. His research shows that, while cognitive abilities mature by age 16, other parts of the brain mature later. Areas that influence criminal culpability, like impulsiveness, risk-aversion, and resistance to peer pressure, continue maturing well into the 20s.  “The science would certainly say there’s significant brain maturation that continues to go on at least until age 21, if not beyond,” he said. “The legal question is harder than the scientific question.”...

In light of evolving neuroscience, some jurisdictions have begun to set up young-adult courts, targeting those between 18 and 25 for consideration that is somewhere between juvenile and adult proceedings. San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Chicago have all launched such initiatives.  But in a string of U.S. Supreme Court cases, beginning with Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 case that abolished the juvenile death penalty, the court determined “a line must be drawn.” Age 18 seemed a conventional choice.

This line has led to perplexing moments in the courtroom over the last year and a half, as Pennsylvania judges have worked to resentence some 500 juvenile lifers — the largest such population in the nation.  Their sentences were deemed illegal under Miller vs. Alabama, a 2012 case, but it took a second case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, to get Pennsylvania courts to apply the ruling retroactively.

At least a half-dozen lifers who sought new sentences in Philadelphia waited for months while lawyers tracked down birth certificates from the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s to determine whether they were on the right side of 18 at the time of the crime.  One, Steven Drake — the only 18-year-old in a group of 11 youths charged in a 1971 stabbing in West Philadelphia — was 23 days too old to make the cut, according to the date of birth on his court docket.

As the title of this post highlights, while this article discusses efforts to expanded the reach of the Supreme Court's Miller ruling precluding mandatory LWOP sentencing of juvenile murderers, this kind of litigation also would carry the potential to expanded the reach of the Supreme Court's prior Graham ruling precluding any LWOP sentencing for juvenile non-homicide offenders.

July 6, 2017 at 11:58 AM | Permalink


This situation is a perfect example of how stupid efforts to correct stupid policy make for a vortex of inanity. They sentenced a guy to life for the death of a person he never laid a finger on simply because he was part of a group that did, and moreover the victim declined medical treatment.

What...the...^&!@#...hell. The solution here is not to expand the definition of youth. The solution is to recognize that what happened to this person is a sick and gross miscarriage of justice. Seems to me that what the judiciary in this case could use is some of @David's "lawyer lovin'".

Posted by: Daniel | Jul 6, 2017 2:04:10 PM

A life sentence is "sick?' Hardly. First of all, the fact that the victim refused medical treatment is well-nigh irrelevant. That you would even mention it shows that your views of the world aren't to be taken seriously.

The decision to go out and rob in a pack is a seriously sick thing to do, and each of the robbers should have gotten serious time. That "he didn't lay a finger on him"--so what? Violence was easily foreseeable, and Stewart is morally culpable for it. Personally, I wouldn't have hesitated to impose capital punishment.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 7, 2017 12:30:31 PM

Daniel. You probably oppose the felony murder rule. OW Holmes supported it. I have yet to discover any instance of his being wrong. So an article sought to rebut the rule. I found an arithmetic error. Once corrected, the felony murder rule had a deterrent effect.

What do you think of my telling an assassin to kill a person on another continent? I have never seen the guy, let alone ever touched him.

When people say, killing a black person is less punished than one killing a white. My answer is to punish people killing black people more, and not to punish those killing whites less. This is validated by the high murder rate of blacks. The unequal treatment results in 5 times more murders of blacks. If you were to even out the punishment rate, the murder of blacks is likely to decrease.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 7, 2017 3:44:13 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB