Juvenile lifers will get new sentences, but what law applies?

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Robert Holbrook, shown with nieces Elisa and Ari, awaits a new hearing while serving a life sentence.

In 1990, on Robert Holbrook's 16th birthday, he joined a group of men on a robbery that turned into a killing. He received the only sentence Pennsylvania law allowed for murder: life without parole.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that mandatory life-without-parole sentences were unconstitutional for those younger than 18. This January, the court ruled that the ban must be applied retroactively, to people like Holbrook. Since then, Pennsylvania's high courts have vacated dozens of life sentences.

It is now clear that Holbrook - along with about 480 other juvenile lifers across the state, 300 of them from Philadelphia - will receive new sentencing hearings following the Supreme Court's ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana. But a key question remains: What sentencing law applies?

"Nobody has any real answer," said State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Montgomery County Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee.

"We're in uncharted territory here," he said, "because we have a situation where the law these juveniles have been sentenced under has now been found to be unconstitutional, and the laws that we adopted as a legislature were adopted after they were sentenced originally" and do not apply to them.

The most straightforward resolution might be new legislation, but it's not so simple.

After the 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, Pennsylvania enacted new sentences for juvenile killers: 25 years to life for those younger than 15, and 35 to life for those 15 to 17. But that law excluded anyone whose sentence was final before the Miller decision. Greenleaf said there's no changing that.

"The problem is, even if we pass something, it would be ex post facto," or retroactive, he said. "I don't think the legislature can do anything at this point, because it could be unconstitutional what we do."

Marsha Levick, chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center, said no new law is needed. Her solution: Resentence juveniles to 20 to 40 years in prison, the punishment for third-degree murder.

"Because there is no constitutional sentencing statute that applies to these individuals, we would argue the court should apply the next-harshest sentence," she said. "That's all the court can do. It can only apply a constitutional sentence."

But Pennsylvania courts have already gone a different route.

About two dozen juvenile lifers - all sentenced, but still in the appeals process, when Miller came down - have received new sentences based on judges' discretion. The results have varied wildly.

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, in the case of Qu'eed Batts - who at age 14 committed a gang-related murder - said the appropriate sentence for individuals such as him would carry a minimum number of years in prison and a maximum of life.

So brothers Devon and Jovon Knox, who were convicted in a Pittsburgh carjacking and murder, received new sentences, of 35 years to life and 25 years to life respectively.

But in re-sentencing Ian Seagraves, who committed a brutal murder in Monroe County, a judge told him, "At this point in time, I have the option of life with parole or life without parole." The judge concluded that life without parole was still the appropriate sentence.

Doug Berman, a sentencing expert at the law school at Ohio State University, said such inconsistency was unsurprising.

"This is the problem when the law is uncertain. It's subject to different suppositions, some of which may be completely out to lunch. Uncertainty breeds errors and differences of opinion," he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court said in Miller that courts must consider the individual situation and the "mitigating qualities of youth" before imposing the sentence of life without parole.

Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm has been inundated with calls and emails from prosecutors and judges trying to figure out how to handle the cases and what sentencing laws apply.

"I know some of these D.A.s are going to go back and ask for the highest minimum they can because there's a public safety question here," she said.

She said if courts are guided by the state's new sentencing law created after Miller, 189 offenders out of 480 would be immediately eligible for parole. The average time served among the 480 is 36 years, and the longest is 62 years.

"In some of these cases, you're going to see time served become the new minimum. Obviously that needs to be very carefully negotiated with the D.A., the defender, and the surviving family members."

For Anita Colon, Holbrook's sister and an advocate for sentencing reform, consideration is all she wants for her brother.

"The court said you have to look at the individual case and understand what that child had been going through," she said. She says her brother's young age at the time of the crime, his conduct over the last 26 years, and that he was not the actual killer all work in his favor. "He made a stupid decision and, without a doubt, he needed to be punished for that, but not to take away the rest of his life."

Prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers across the state, which the Pennsylvania Corrections Department says has more juvenile lifers than any other, have been tangling with this question and coming to disparate conclusions. One Chester County judge converted the cases on his docket to "time served to life," triggering the immediate possibility of parole.

But Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said there was some consensus among prosecutors: "We believe that the sentencing provision enacted by the legislature for those cases after June 2012 can serve as good guidance."

Bradley Bridge, who's working on the cases for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said he had been meeting with prosecutors and judges in Philadelphia to set up a structure to resolve the cases, including what sentences could be imposed. To him, one thing is clear: Resentencing juveniles to life is not permissible.

"They must be given new sentences that have both a minimum and a maximum," he said. "That is what is required under Pennsylvania law."

Berman called the situation unprecedented: When the Supreme Court struck down other harsh laws, such as the juvenile death penalty, it was relatively straightforward to convert those sentences to an obviously milder sentence of life in prison.

But in this case, different inmates - ones who have served 40 years already and those who have served five - are likely to argue for different resolutions. He said, "It's hard to engineer a one-size-fits-all solution."

"This is one of the reasons, I think, why the jurisdictions like Pennsylvania, which had the most Miller cases, were disinclined to apply this retroactively," he said. "You get all these complications just to sort out what law applies."

So, Levick said, one outcome is all but certain: There will be even more legal appeals.

"I anticipate we're going to be litigating these issues through the state and appellate courts," she said, "as judges pick and choose what they think is appropriate."

smelamed@phillynews.com

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