Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that states including Pennsylvania must resentence those given mandatory life-without-parole terms as juveniles, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has signaled that parole will be the primary, perhaps only, means of release for the city's 300 or so juvenile lifers, the largest such population in the world.
Now, a federal judge who remanded two cases, one from Philadelphia and another from Delaware County, has said such a resentencing scheme - accomplished by pairing a minimum sentence, such as 35 years, with a maximum of life - would violate the high court's ruling.
"A sentencing practice that results in every juvenile's sentence with a maximum term of life, regardless of the minimum term, does not reflect individualized sentencing," Timothy J. Savage, District Court judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, wrote in both opinions. He added: "Passing off the ultimate decision to the Parole Board in every case represents an abdication of judicial responsibility and ignores the [Supreme Court's] mandate."
The Supreme Court called for individualized sentencing, and said only juveniles who are irreparably corrupt may be resentenced to life without parole.
Savage noted that leaving the decision to the Parole Board means life imprisonment is still possible. "If the sentencing court finds that the defendant is . . . not incorrigible, it must impose a maximum sentence less than life to reflect that finding."
One of the cases in question is that of Kempis Songster, who was a 15-year-old runaway in 1988 when he and a friend fatally stabbed another teen in a Southwest Philadelphia crack house.
The other pertains to Trina Garnett, who was 14 in 1976 when she set a fire in which two children died in Chester. She is intellectually disabled and schizophrenic, and had been abused and homeless as a child. She was convicted of second-degree murder.
Jeff Monhait, a Cozen O'Connor lawyer who has been working on Songster's case, said it was not clear how the opinion will affect Songster's resentencing proceedings, which have begun in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. "It remains to be seen how the court will act or react," he said.
Garnett's legal team declined to comment.
In Philadelphia, the first two juvenile lifers to negotiate new sentences agreed in June to deals of 35 years to life. Those deals reflect the district attorney's strategy of making offers based on current state law, which requires minimum sentences of between 20 and 35 years to life for juveniles convicted of first- or second-degree murder, depending on their age and the nature of the conviction.
Since both men had served more than 35 years, they were immediately eligible for review by the state Parole Board. Both were granted parole in July, with support from the district attorney.
Since then, the Defender Association of Philadelphia has been appointed to about 225 cases, and private lawyers have taken on other cases pro bono. The court has put the cases on an expedited timeline, and lawyers on both sides have said they hope many will be resolved by agreement.
But Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association - many of whose clients have served just 10 or 20 years of a life sentence - said Savage's opinion could derail those negotiations.
"The prosecutor's office has been making offers that are unconstitutional, that have been rejected by federal court, and they have to make offers consistent with the law," Bridge said. "All offers are going back."
So far, prosecutors have only made a handful of offers to public defender clients; now, those must be reassessed, Bridge said.
Cameron Kline, a spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, said in a statement that the offers already are in line with the court directives.
"This opinion doesn't change the law pronounced by the United States and Pennsylvania Supreme Courts," he said.