Court lays down the law for Philly's juvenile lifers

Joseph Ligon has served 63 years in prison for two murders committed when he was 15 years old, making him the oldest and longest-serving juvenile lifer in the world.

In criminal court, the ground rules are typically set: who has the burden of proof, to what standard they must prove it, what sentencing statute applies, and whether it’s up to a judge or jury to decide.

But in the cases of the more than 300 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia being resentenced following a pair of Supreme Court decisions – Miller v. Alabama, finding that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, and Montgomery v. Louisiana, requiring Pennsylvania and other states to apply decision that retroactively –  these remain open questions.

“As in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this is a street fight. We want to establish the rules,” Defender Association of Philadelphia lawyer Bradley Bridge told an en banc panel of three Common Pleas Court judges Monday in a courtroom that was filled to capacity.

The panel was assembled to hear arguments on 15 legal questions that may come up in contested resentencing hearings. All resentencings completed so far in Philadelphia have been by agreement; typically, they have been offers of 35 years to life that made the inmates eligible for immediate parole. But in other cases, defense lawyers said, lifers have rejected offers as high as 50 years to life, or even life without parole.

“The First Judicial District recognizes the need for consistent decisions to the extent possible,” Judge Kathryn Streeter-Lewis said. “En banc decisions will be binding on all cases.”

Among the most substantive questions raised: Since Pennsylvania’s first- and second-degree murder sentencing statutes were invalidated in these cases, must the courts impose a third-degree sentence (with a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of 40 years)? Is a maximum sentence of life even constitutional for juveniles? And, since the Supreme Court said life without parole must be reserved for those juveniles who are “irreparably corrupt,” who has the burden of proving irreparable corruption?

Hugh J. Burns Jr., chief of the Appeals Unit for the District Attorney’s Office, told the judges the most relevant case to consider in many of the questions is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of Qu’eed Batts, who was 14 when he fatally shot another teenager in Easton. The court there rejected the argument that Batts should be resentenced under the third-degree murder statute, and found that a mandatory maximum sentence of life applied.

The Juvenile Law Center’s Marsha Levick — who with Bridge spoke for the defendants, including Joseph Ligon, the oldest juvenile lifer, who has been in prison 63 years — countered that the Batts decision came before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana. The state Supreme Court has since heard additional arguments on the Batts case, and may yet provide further guidance on how juvenile lifer cases should be handled, she said.

Streeter-Lewis did not say when the judges' decisions would be published. But defense attorneys expect their opinion within a month, ahead of contested resentencing hearings already scheduled to take place over the next few months.