In Philly courts, whether they'll die in prison comes down to their birthday

In 1982, when Judge Armand Della Porta sentenced Orlando Stewart to spend the rest of his life in prison, he did it with apparent regret. “This is the best example of how wrong mandatory sentencing is,” he said.

Stewart was the last of 10 West Philadelphia teenagers sentenced in the 1981 death of University of Pennsylvania graduate student Douglas Huffman. They’d gone out in a pack, looking for someone to rob. One teen hit Huffman, knocking him to the pavement where he hit his head hard enough to fracture his skull. Huffman declined medical treatment, and was found dead in his bed two days later.

Seven of the teens served short sentences, some as little as a year. Ronald Saunders, who orchestrated the attack, was sentenced to life. But he was made eligible for parole this March after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that drew on evolving brain science to conclude juveniles are less culpable than adults, and cannot be doomed to life without parole under mandatory sentencing rules. Charles Manor, the teen who knocked Huffman to the ground, was also made eligible for parole.

But Stewart, who never touched Huffman, won’t get a new sentence. That’s because two months and 10 days before the crime, Stewart turned 18. Those two months were the difference between kid and adult under the law — and between the “hope for some years of life outside prison walls” promised in that 2016 Supreme Court decision and the certainty of death in prison.

Now, appeals by 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old lifers like Stewart have begun to reach Pennsylvania’s highest court. One was filed in June by Charmaine Pfender, who was 18 when she shot a man she says was attempting to rape her at knifepoint, killing him. Such petitions argue that the same immaturity and impulsivity that diminish younger teens’ culpability continue well into the 20s, as a person’s brain continues to develop.

If successful, the appeals could have sweeping implications: More than half of Pennsylvania’s lifers entered the state prison system between age 18 and 25. That’s 2,763 inmates.

These arguments appear to be gaining traction elsewhere. An Illinois appeals court in December granted a new sentencing hearing to Antonio House, who was 19 when he participated in a gang-related killing. And a federal judge has agreed to hear arguments in the Connecticut case of Luis Noel Cruz, who was 18 when he participated in a murder.

Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychologist specializing in brain development, says such arguments have a scientific basis. His research shows that, while cognitive abilities mature by age 16, other parts of the brain mature later. Areas that influence criminal culpability, like impulsiveness, risk-aversion, and resistance to peer pressure, continue maturing well into the 20s.

“The science would certainly say there’s significant brain maturation that continues to go on at least until age 21, if not beyond,” he said. “The legal question is harder than the scientific question.”

After all, he added, “We have lots of age boundaries we draw in society that don’t make any sense from a scientific point of view. Why on earth would we let people drive when they’re 16, but not see sexy movies until they’re 17? Driving is a much more dangerous thing to do. Why do we have different ages for purchasing tobacco and purchasing alcohol, if we believe those are both harmful things for young people?”

In light of evolving neuroscience, some jurisdictions have begun to set up young-adult courts, targeting those between 18 and 25 for consideration that is somewhere between juvenile and adult proceedings. San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Chicago have all launched such initiatives.

But in a string of U.S. Supreme Court cases, beginning with Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 case that abolished the juvenile death penalty, the court determined “a line must be drawn.” Age 18 seemed a conventional choice.

This line has led to perplexing moments in the courtroom over the last year and a half, as Pennsylvania judges have worked to resentence some 500 juvenile lifers — the largest such population in the nation. Their sentences were deemed illegal under Miller vs. Alabama, a 2012 case, but it took a second case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, to get Pennsylvania courts to apply the ruling retroactively.

At least a half-dozen lifers who sought new sentences in Philadelphia waited for months while lawyers tracked down birth certificates from the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s to determine whether they were on the right side of 18 at the time of the crime. One, Steven Drake — the only 18-year-old in a group of 11 youths charged in a 1971 stabbing in West Philadelphia — was 23 days too old to make the cut, according to the date of birth on his court docket.

To Bret Grote, “Arbitrarily drawing this line and hunting down birth certificates, it points to the fundamental unfairness.”

Grote, a Pittsburgh-based anti-incarceration activist who cofounded the nonprofit Abolitionist Law Center, is representing Pfender and two others who argue the Miller ruling should apply to them. One is Arthur Johnson, who spent 37 years in solitary confinement until Grote sued and won his release into the general population last September. More than 100 lifers who were just a few months or years over 18 at the time of their crimes have written to him seeking representation.

Pfender’s appeal is the first to reach the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, according to Grote. The court has not yet determined whether it will take the case.

“I think as a legal question, Ms. Pfender meets the requirement of Miller v. Alabama of having diminished culpability,” he said.

Pfender, he said, suffered years of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by her father, and began drinking alcohol regularly at age 8 to cope.

Donna Hill, her mother, believes those traumatic memories were triggered at the time of the murder. “It was self-defense. She didn’t want to be raped again,” she said.

Hill said that these days her daughter is a civic leader in prison who’s developed programs for mothers and children. She’s the type of person who plays Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny during visiting-room holidays.

“I would think people would look at their own histories and think, ‘Wow, when I was that age, I really didn’t have an adult brain. I really didn’t think the way I do now,’ ” she said.

The trouble is, pinning down just what makes an adult brain is tricky.

“There is no number that anyone would agree, ‘Oh, this is adulthood,’ ” said Beatriz Luna, a University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist who studies how neural processes develop.

“We have never found that by 18 any of these processes are mature,” she said. “Now we have extended our studies up to the age of 30. Certainly, we have results that show that by 20, things are beginning to stabilize.”

Steinberg said few studies have focused on 18- to 24-year-olds, so more research is needed.

But whatever that science yields might not make a difference in court.

“You could argue late adolescents are still less mature than adults — nobody in the scientific community would dispute that,” Steinberg said. “On the other side, you could say, ‘Yes, but they’re mature enough.’ ”