In Pennsylvania, the law of the land prior to June 25, 2012, was that anyone convicted of first- or second-degree murder was subject to a mandatory sentence of life without parole (or death in the case of capital first-degree murder). This applied to anyone tried and sentenced in adult court, regardless of their age at the time of the offense. That is, juveniles could be certified to adult criminal court for murder charges and there be treated as adults subject to the same sentences. However, in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), a recent Supreme Court case, it was held that a mandatory sentence of life without the chance of parole was unconstitutional for juveniles under the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

I discussed this case in an early post, Miller did not explicitly state that a juvenile could not receive a sentence of life without parole. Rather, it held that a sentence of life without parole could not be a mandatory that must be imposed but rather the sentencing court must conduct an individualized assessment of the juvenile before them to determine the appropriate sentence. The Court used scientific evidence demonstrating that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and therefore the juvenile offender is more impulsive, less mature, less able to make thoughtful judgments of risk and more capable of change or rehabilitation.

This created a number of questions for the hundreds of individuals in Pennsylvania serving/facing life without parole sentences for offenses committed before their 18th birthday:

  1. What was the remedy on direct appeal for juveniles sentenced to life without parole on or after the date Miller became law where Pennsylvania law still required a life without parole sentence;
  2. What should Pennsylvania lawmakers do to rewrite the law in the wake of Miller as the Pennsylvania sentencing scheme was now unconstitutional; and
  3. Are those juveniles who were previously convicted and sentenced to life without parole before Miller became effective entitled to a new sentencing hearing? That is, does Miller’s holding apply retroactively to those who were juveniles at the time of their offense but were sentenced 5, 10, 20 or more years ago?

Remedy on Direct Appeal for Juveniles Sentenced to Life Without Parole

As to the first question above regarding the remedy for those sentenced after Miller became effective on June 25, 2012, juvenile lifers were anxiously awaiting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in Commonwealth v. Qu‘eed Batts. These offenders, who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense, had now been sentenced to an unconstitutional life without parole sentence. This case addressed the remedy, on direct appeal, for these juveniles. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that juveniles sentenced for murder after Miller were now subject to a mandatory maximumsentence of life imprisonment, accompanied by a minimum sentence to be determined by the trial court upon resentencing. The court, using somewhat vague language, stated that these defendants were subject to “high mandatory minimum sentences and the possibility of life without parole, upon evaluation by the sentencing court of criteria along the lines of those identified in Miller”.

Pennsylvania Legislature Drafts New Law Following Miller

Following the ruling in Batts, Pennsylvania lawmakers drafted legislation to provide a more definitive framework for Pennsylvania judges sentencing an individual convicted for a first- or second-degree murder that occurred prior to their 18th birthday. The new law set mandatory minimums as follows:

  • 35 years for juveniles between the age of 15 and 17 convicted of first-degree murder.
  • 25 years for those juveniles under 15 convicted of first-degree murder.
  • 30 years for juveniles between the age of 15 and 17 convicted of second-degree murder.
  • 20 years for those under 15 convicted of second-degree murder.

There’s still a maximum of life imprisonment without parole as Miller did not say that this sentence was unconstitutional. Many argued that these arbitrary mandatory minimums missed the true spirit of Miller as the Supreme Court stressed that the sentencing judge should conduct an individual assessment of the juvenile offender before them to craft an appropriate sentence for that juvenile taking into consideration age, prior record, family background, education level, any mental health issues, drug or alcohol problems, specific involvement in the crime and many other factors that would address rehabilitation in addition to punishment.

Will Miller Apply Retroactively?

The third, and most far-reaching question post-Miller was whether its holding would apply retroactively. That is, are hundreds of individuals sentenced to life without parole for first- or second-degree murder for offenses committed before their 18th birthday entitled to new sentencing hearings regardless of their age now and the amount of time they’ve been incarcerated. Or, does Miller only apply to those sentenced on or after June 25, 2012? This question is currently before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in the matter of Commonwealth v. Ian Cunningham, 51 A.3d 178. This case was argued before the Supreme Court on September 12, 2012. The Petition for Allowance of Appeal was to address the following issue: Did the trial court err in imposing a life sentence without parole for the crime of second-degree murder? However, both parties were directed to address the following two related issues:

  1. Whether the holding in Miller v. Alabama, that a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole unless there is consideration of mitigating circumstances by a judge or jury, retroactively applies to an inmate serving such sentence when the inmate has exhausted his direct appeal rights and is proceeding under the Post Conviction Relief Act?
  2. If Miller v. Alabama, is determined to have retroactive effect, what is the appropriate remedy under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act for a defendant who was sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a murder committed when the defendant was under the age of eighteen?

Stay tuned for results in Cunningham as a positive defense ruling would flood the courts with PCRA filings requesting new sentencing hearings for hundreds of convicted murders in Pennsylvania. If you or a loved one was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a first- or second-degree murder that was committed prior to the offender’s 18th birthday, contact Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Brian M. Fishman for a consultation regarding your rights.