A Philly juvenile lifer gets time served - and a chance at exoneration

Since 1994, Philadelphia prosecutors have worked hard to keep Johnny Berry behind bars for a crime he insists he had no part in: the robbery and murder of 72-year-old Leonard Jones in the city’s Parkside neighborhood.

First, they gave a deal to his codefendant to testify against him in exchange for a lesser sentence and a promise not to prosecute on a string of robberies he had committed. And more than a decade later, after the codefendant, Tauheed Lloyd, signed an affidavit admitting he’d lied, they warned Lloyd if he testified to that in court, he’d face not only perjury charges, but also a possible new trial on the original murder charge.

Now, for the first time, the office is giving Berry another look. Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara McDermott said Wednesday that the District Attorney’s Office and Berry’s lawyer have negotiated a new sentence of 23 years to life that will make Berry immediately eligible for parole. As for Berry’s claim of innocence, she said, “He can continue to fight it on the street instead of in prison.”

She said the District Attorney’s Office had confirmed that “the review of the case will continue irrespective of whether the petitioner is resentenced.”

It was a sudden reversal of fortune for Berry, who has lost many appeals over the years and was before McDermott only because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Because Berry was just 16 at the time of the crime, he is one of about 300 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia who were granted reconsideration of their sentences.

As of last fall, the district attorney had offered Berry a deal for 30 years in prison to life, a sentence that would be in accordance with Pennsylvania’s sentencing law for juvenile offenders convicted of murder. That offer changed following the inauguration of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a longtime civil rights lawyer who has promised to rethink how prosecution is managed in the city.

It will be another month before the deal can be finalized in court. Jones’ family members, including his wife and daughter, plan to be there. At an October hearing, they told McDermott they believed Berry should serve at least 35 years before being considered for parole.

“These young men chose their path, a path of robbery and murder, a path that destroyed their youth by incarceration and left a family without its patriarch,” Jones’ daughter, Jacqueline, wrote in a letter that was read in court by one of her sisters.

Berry, who remains at Graterford Prison, apologized to the family at a previous court date. “I’m sorry that happened to you. Whatever happens to me is OK, but I’m sorry.”

Upon learning of the prosecutor’s new offer, Berry expressed relief: “I have to give Krasner credit. He held true to his promise. He definitely changed the culture of the office.”

What the decision foretells for juvenile lifer resentencings is not clear.

“We are in the process of internally reviewing the procedures for how juvenile life sentences have been handled in the past,” Ben Waxman, Krasner’s spokesman, said in a statement. “We are trying to determine what changes are needed in the process to make sure that these cases are handled in a fair and efficient manner going forward. We are aware that these are time-sensitive issues and are working to address them as quickly as possible.”