Sentenced to life as a juvenile, he hopes ruling means freedom

Stacey Torrance, with niece Alexis and nephew Zuri in 2003 at the state prison in Chester, received an automatic life-without-parole sentence for a 1988 murder he didn't directly commit.
Stacey Torrance, with niece Alexis and nephew Zuri in 2003 at the state prison in Chester, received an automatic life-without-parole sentence for a 1988 murder he didn't directly commit.
Posted: June 27, 2012

STACEY TORRANCE was in his prison cell Monday, writing to his attorney for an update, when the news he sought came blaring out of his TV: The U.S. Supreme Court had declared mandatory life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional for juveniles.

"I waited another 15 or 20 minutes to hear them say it again, because I wanted to make sure my eyes saw it right," said Torrance, an inmate at the state prison in Chester, who was 14 when he helped plan a robbery that ended with the kidnapping and murder of a West Philadelphia teenager in 1988.

Torrance didn't kill 16-year-old Alex Porter; he wasn't there when his cousin and another man killed the boy, and he insists he knew nothing of their motives. Yet he was convicted of murder and got an automatic life-without-parole sentence, as state law requires for all first- and second-degree murder convictions.

Torrance, now 38, has never lost hope that he would someday regain his freedom. If he gets out, he hopes to get a job as an electrician — that's what he does in prison now, for 42 cents an hour. And "pray — that's the first thing I would do if I got out. I would thank God for the blessing," Torrance said. "Whatever comes my way, I look forward to it — even getting a bill and paying taxes, [because] freedom is so valuable."

Still, he couldn't really celebrate the high court's decision Monday.

"I'm grateful, and this is good news, but one thing prison has taught me is patience," he said, adding that he doesn't expect any quick changes regarding his fate. "What does this mean? I don't know what comes next."

In declaring automatic life-without-parole sentences "cruel and unusual" for minors, the justices struck down laws in 29 states, including in Pennsylvania, that mandated life behind bars for murderers, no matter their age. About 2,600 people nationwide are serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles; Pennsylvania leads the country, with 480 juvenile lifers.

Advocates agreed that the ruling is likely to spur a flurry of appeals for judges to reconsider sentences. "There's definitely a lot of work ahead before this becomes a reality for individuals serving this sentence, but I think they have a renewed sense of hope now," said Jessica Feierman, supervising attorney for the Juvenile Law Center.

The justices did not ban the penalty altogether for cases going forward. But they did suggest it be used sparingly, citing past legal decisions and current scientific studies "about children's diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change."

"We think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon," Justice Elena Kagan said, writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision, which comes two years after the court struck down life-without-parole sentences for minors in nonhomicide cases.

National NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said his group would continue to work to ban the sentence outright for juveniles, especially because black youths are 10 times more likely than white youths to receive the sentence.

Hearing of the decision, Anna Gardner immediately thought of the college ring she just received in the mail. Her son Dale, a juvenile lifer, earned it for getting his paralegal degree while in prison. "Maybe he'll eventually get to wear it now," she said.

Dale was 16 in 1988, when he bashed an 11-year-old boy to death with construction debris in FDR Park in South Philadelphia.

"I don't defend what he did," his mother, 60, of South Philly, said Monday. "But how do you throw away the key on a 16-year-old? There's worse crimes that adults do, crimes of passion, and they walk away after 10, 15, 20 years in jail. My son's been in 24 years. He's spent more of his life in [prison] than out." n

Contact Dana DiFilippo at 215-854-5934, difilid@phillynews.com or on Twitter @DanaDiFilippo. Read her blog at phillyconfidential.com.

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