Teen-lifers' appeals progress

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is moving quickly to figure out how the courts and prisons should comply with the June 25 U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating mandatory life sentences without chance of parole for people who killed when they were under age 18.

In an order filed last week, the state’s high court ordered prosecution and defense lawyers to file briefs by July 23 suggesting what relief the court should order for 480 Pennsylvania inmates – about 350 from Philadelphia – serving life for murders committed as teens.

The state Supreme Court said it will hold oral argument on the question some time between Sept. 10-14 when the justices next sit in Philadelphia.

The case before the state justices is known as Commonwealth v. Batts, an appeal filed on behalf of Qu’Eed Batts, 21, sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2007 for a murder in Easton when Batts was 14. Since the Batts appeal was filed, lawyers for the Defender Association of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center have campaigned to have the appeal include the cases of other Pennsylvania teen lifers.

In December, with the U.S. Supreme Court poised to rule in the Arkansas and Alabama appeals, the state Supreme Court put Batts’ appeal on hold until the nation’s high court decided the issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling gave hope for a chance at parole for an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 inmates in 28 states who are serving life without chance of parole for crimes committed when they were teens. Pennsylvania has the largest number of teen lifers.

Following a line of decisions involving juvenile criminals that had invalidated execution for teen killers and life prison terms for teens convicted of non-homicides, the nation’s high court reiterated that brain research shows that teenage brains are immature and that teens do not understand the consequences of their actions. For the same reason, the court reasoned, teenagers are more likely to be successfully rehabilitated than inmates who committed crimes as adults.

Complying with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision poses several problems for Pennsylvania’s justice system. The state’s 480 teen lifers can’t automatically get parole hearings because Pennsylvania law does not allow the state parole board to consider the cases of people serving life without parole for murder. The state Supreme Court could order new sentencing hearings, but there are no guidelines for trial judges to follow in crafting a new sentence.

For example, might some judges simply resentence the former teens to new life prison terms that make them eligible for parole? Might some judges resentence the inmates to consecutive sentences for murder and the lesser crimes of which they were convicted, thus effectively creating a new sentence of life without parole?

These are the kinds of questions that are sure bring out victim rights groups, inmate advocates and others to file “friend-of-the-court briefs” to expand on the basic issues involved in Batts’ appeal.