An ex-prosecutor who tried a 1988 murder case against two 16-year-old boys now serving sentences of life without parole says he was willing to offer them a deal for as little as eight years - and calls it "absurd" that Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is still trying to keep them in prison.
"The logic escapes me as to how eight could have been appropriate at the time, and 35 is good when they've rehabilitated into wonderful people," Jack McMahon, who prosecuted Kempis Songster and Dameon Brome on murder charges in 1988, said Tuesday. "It's absurd. Those guys have more than paid their price.
"The DA should step up and do the right thing," he said. "One wonders if that is even possible with this office."
Songster's case and others are back in the courts as a consequence of Montgomery v. Louisiana, a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January that made retroactive the court's ban on automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. The ruling affects about 2,300 cases nationwide, about 500 of which are in Pennsylvania - including about 300 in Philadelphia.
During a hearing in Songster's case Monday, U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage sharply criticized Williams' policy of offering uniform deals of 35 years to life to those serving out juvenile life sentences. He accused the office of doing it because "it looks good."
McMahon, now a prominent defense attorney, said Tuesday that Williams should allow Songster and Brome to be released. He called on the District Attorney's Office to show more leniency with "juvenile lifers," many of whom have led productive lives in prison and have ample evidence of rehabilitation.
"The right thing to do is to send Kempis Songster home and let him live out his life," McMahon said. "And I prosecuted him, for God's sake."
Cameron Kline, spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, said the new sentences the office was recommending used Pennsylvania's current sentencing statute "only as a guide." He said any case with no agreement on a new sentence would be scheduled for a contested hearing before a panel of judges in Common Pleas Court.
The office's review of the 300 juvenile life-sentence cases as ordered by the Supreme Court began in January, the day the case was decided, Kline said, and "could take approximately three years."
The office, Kline said, "wants to provide hope for these defendants who have been serving sentences, many decades-long, of life without the possibility of parole." The office protocol involves a seven-step process looking at each case independently, he said, beginning with the oldest cases, and involving contacting family of the victim, and a review of the defendant's prison record and case history.
Kline declined to comment specifically on Songster's case or on McMahon's comments.
Tariq El-Shabazz, a former prominent defense attorney who is now Williams' top assistant, did not immediately respond to messages asking for comment on McMahon's criticism. El-Shabazz told the judge Monday that the office was moving as quickly as possible through the cases.
Songster and Brome, both now 44, have been in prison in Pennsylvania for 29 years, since their arrests. Songster is incarcerated at SCI Graterford, Brome at SCI Dallas.
They were convicted of killing another teen, Anjo Pryce, in a Southwest Philadelphia drug house in 1987, a crime committed when they were 15. All three were runaways who had gone to work for a Jamaican drug gang in Philadelphia.
McMahon recalled prosecuting Songster and Brome before now-deceased Judge George Ivins, and said he sat in a room with them and tried to persuade them to accept the plea deals for third-degree murder with a sentence as low as eight to 16 years.
"These were two young kids basically being held captive in a drug house with the threat of serious harm if they tried to leave," McMahon wrote in an email. "Seems a little absurd," he wrote, to think that the District Attorney's office in the 1980s thought an eight-year minimum was acceptable, but that the current district attorney believes a "35-year minimum is now the right thing."
McMahon blamed the pair's refusal at the time on the influence of others in prison on teenagers "entrenched in their immaturity." They were convicted by a jury and sentenced to what was then the mandatory sentence: life without parole.
"If Kempis was not so immature and young at the time, he would probably be out of jail over 20 years ago," McMahon wrote.
The District Attorney's Office has been offering negotiated sentences of 35 years to life based on the current statute in Pennsylvania for juveniles 15 and older (25 years to life applies to those under 15). But that statute does not legally apply to those already sentenced, and Assistant District Attorney Susan Affronti conceded in court Monday that a sentencing judge was free to issue a lower minimum sentence.
The office said it was willing to proceed with a contested sentence for Songster but would continue to insist on a life maximum.
The office dropped its appeal of Savage's Aug. 17 opinion, which also had set a 120-day time clock for a new sentencing and said a life maximum should be given only in rare, "incorrigible" cases.
McMahon said he would be willing to testify at Songster's new sentencing. Songster has a status hearing scheduled Monday in Common Pleas Court.