New sentences for first 2 of 300 Philly juvenile lifers

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Family photo shows Tyrone Jones with (from left) niece Michelle Jones, sister Ruth Margo Gee, niece Chandler Jones, and Beulah Jones, his mother, who died in 2012.

Philadelphia is home to more people sentenced as juveniles to life without parole than anyplace else in the world - about 300 inmates, all due a second chance under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found automatic life sentences for juveniles to be unconstitutional.

On Friday, the first two inmates to be resentenced in Philadelphia struck agreements that will make them immediately eligible for parole.

The sentences, of 35 years to life, offer the first glimpses of how Judge Lillian Ransom, who is overseeing the process, and District Attorney Seth Williams intend to handle these cases - and will soon be among the first tests of whether the state parole board will release people convicted of first- or second-degree murder, a question it has not faced in recent memory.

One of the men is Henry Smolarski, 53, who was a student at St. Joseph's Preparatory School in 1979 when he stabbed Neal Sherman, a Temple University freshman, in the chest on South Street, later claiming he thought Sherman was a man who had earlier robbed and assaulted him.

The other is Tyrone Jones, 59, convicted of the gang-related execution of 17-year-old Henry Harrison in North Philadelphia in 1973. He has been claiming his innocence in court for years. His conviction was based on a confession that conflicted with key facts of the crime.

The men are among 500 in Pennsylvania due new hearings following the Supreme Court's January ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana. That decision found that the court's 2012 ban on automatic life without parole for juveniles, in Miller v. Alabama, must be applied retroactively.

The District Attorney's Office on Friday outlined its resentencing protocol, which would use as a guide the current state sentencing law that sets a minimum first-degree murder sentence at between 25 and 35 years to life for juveniles, depending on their age at the time of the crime. The three-year process would begin with the oldest cases, taking into account victim-impact statements, conduct in prison, and the nature of the crime.

The courtroom was filled with about 20 of Smolarski's friends and family, including men who had been incarcerated alongside him at the Rockview state prison. His lawyer brought materials referencing his rehabilitation, including letters from a prison counselor supporting his release and from the father of another inmate thanking Smolarski for being a mentor to his son.

Also in attendance was Sherman's brother Ralph, 58, who had taken a bus from Connecticut to speak before the court. He said the killing turned his family's life upside down. But Ralph Sherman, now a lawyer who often represents people seeking pardons, said he recognized the potential for teenagers to mature and change.

"It is my belief ... that the defendant has attempted to rehabilitate himself. It's not something that I expected would happen," he said. "I believe the world would be a better place if the defendant is given the opportunity to apply for parole."

A tearful Smolarski apologized to Sherman in court before his supporters left the room, weeping and hugging one another.

As for Jones, his lawyers focused on his self-improvement efforts in prison - he studied to be an electrician, and became so adept he wired the warden's house - and his plans for the future, to live with his sister, Ruth Margo Gee, 64, in rural North Carolina.

Gee had driven all night after a nursing shift in North Carolina to be at the hearing. She said that after so many years of hopelessness, she finally had a sense of hope restored.

"Tyrone is a great brother. He's given me hope. Even though he's been away physically, he's been with us in spirit," she said, wiping her eyes.

Assistant District Attorney Chesley Lightsey pledged to write letters of support for both men's release to the Board of Probation and Parole.

It's unclear what impact those letters will have, or whether the parole board will offer an expedited process for juvenile lifers.

"We're evaluating how we do these cases, because obviously they are unique," parole board spokeswoman Laura Treaster said.

How the board responds to Jones and Smolarski may set the tone for the hundreds of cases yet to come.

For now, Bradley Bridge, a public defender in Philadelphia who is leading work on defense of 225 of the lifers, said many of his clients are skeptical of any new sentence that relies on parole.

"There's no guarantee that the board will ever grant parole or even grant parole in a timely fashion," he said.

Burton Rose, Smolarski's lawyer, is confident. He said his client had never had a misconduct citation in 37 years in prison.

"When they have problems in the institution, Henry is the go-to man. He calms down situations. He guides other inmates," Rose said.

But Jones' pending innocence claim could be a barrier, said John Hollway, executive director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

"It's a huge paradox for people who've been wrongfully convicted. ... If you don't acknowledge remorse for the crime, the parole board doesn't take you seriously."

The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole's official handbook advises inmates: "Any claim of innocence could be viewed as a denial of responsibility and a lack of remorse."

Monica Morris, who served on Florida's parole commission for 12 years and is chief administrative officer of the Association of Paroling Authorities International, said an innocence claim could help a parole case - but only if it's convincing.

"If you're convinced somebody committed the crime and you're looking for remorse, but they can't give you the remorse you're looking for because they can't even accept responsibility they committed the crime, that would certainly be an issue," she said.

Jones' lead attorney, Hayes Hunt, believes that won't be an issue.

"Our focus will be on his rehabilitation and who he is now, at 60 years old, as opposed to showing remorse for a crime that took place in 1973."

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