Philly DA will seek life without parole for some juveniles, after all

Last June, District Attorney Seth Williams made national news - and garnered wide praise, including a New York Times editorial - after he told the Inquirer he would no longer seek sentences of life without parole for juveniles. 

"It's my goal to give all of these individuals some light at the end of the tunnel," he said then, discussing the resentencings required of those affected by a pair of Supreme Court decisions that found automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional and required states to apply that ruling retroactively. Philadelphia is home to 300 juvenile lifers, more than any other city in the country. 

Now, his office has informed a federal court in a letter that it intends to seek life without parole in at least three of the cases it has reviewed so far.  It has made offers in 89 other cases, according to the letter; 71 of the offers would make the defendants, who already have served 35 years or more, eligible for immediate parole.

According to a separate court filing by the Defender Association of Philadelphia, one of the three facing a life sentence once again is Andre Martin, who was 15 years old when he shot a police officer, John Trettin, dead in 1976.

Camera icon  philadelphia Inquirer
Sept. 26, 1976, coverage of the murder trial of Andre Martin, who was 15 years old and had an IQ of 80 when he shot police officer John Trettin. Both the defense lawyer and the prosecutor at the time were intent on making their names on this case, "a crime that shocked the city."

District Attorney's Office spokesman Cameron Kline said he could provide no information on the three cases, but he offered a statement: "District Attorney Williams has said that he prefers not to seek sentences of life without parole, but there will always be exceptions. The office looks at each case individually and makes sentencing offers based on the evidence, defendant's history, and the law, among other factors." 

Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association, which is representing more than two-thirds of the city's juvenile lifers, said the reversal surprised him. He said he learned of it just weeks before a hearing, set for March 6, in which a panel of judges is scheduled to consider questions of law that will guide future resentencings in Philadelphia.

"I’m perplexed as to why individual district attorneys might be seeking a life sentence upon resentencing, when Seth Williams, the district attorney, has committed to not seeking life upon resentencing," he said.

In June, Williams told the Inquirer that he had taken to heart the Supreme Court’s pronouncement, in the cases Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana, that life without parole must be reserved for the "rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption."

Martin's case was a high-profile one in its time, shot through with issues of race and police-community relations that still resonate today. According to Inquirer coverage from 1976, Martin had an IQ of 80 and was high on Valium and marijuana when he shot a police officer through the window of an apartment in a public-housing project.  

If Martin had been resentenced according to the guidelines Williams had previously indicated he would follow -- that is, guided by current state law, which advises a minimum of 35 years to life for 15- to 17-year-olds convicted of first-degree murder -- he would have been  eligible for parole immediately.