Reformers eye 2 killers

Pa. high court to hear cases

Posted: September 11, 2012

QU'EED BATTS was a 14-year-old peon in the Bloods gang in Easton who wanted to climb up the thug ladder, so he fatally shot a teen and injured another in a 2006 attack ordered by a gang superior.

Ian Cunningham was 17 when he murdered someone in a 1999 robbery in Philadelphia.

Now, these two killers are the unlikely leaders in an effort to reform juvenile law in Pennsylvania. Lawyers will argue their cases Wednesday before the state Supreme Court. The resulting rulings are expected to set precedent for the nearly 500 juvenile lifers hoping for a shot at freedom in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision that automatic life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for minors.

Arguments in Cunningham's case will focus on whether the high court's decision applies retroactively to juvenile lifers who have exhausted their appeals, as Cunningham has, and yet want a chance for parole under the recent federal ruling. Lawyers also will debate whether the trial judge erred in ordering a life-without-parole sentence for second-degree murder.

In Batts' case, the justices directed lawyers to propose an appropriate remedy for juvenile lifers still fighting their sentences.

Juvenile lifers' advocates suggest commuting their sentences to a set minimum time and allowing for parole consideration every one to three years thereafter.

Few agree on an appropriate time limit. The Pennsylvania Prison Society, for example, suggests 10 years, while Iowa's governor outraged juvenile lifers' supporters by commuting their sentences to 60 years.

"Sixty years is essentially a sentence of life-without-parole," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C.

Activists also say judges should be given discretion to consider the offender's role in a homicide. Getaway drivers and lookouts, for example, perhaps don't deserve as harsh a penalty as the shooter, they say.

"The use of life-without-parole is far more extreme in the United States than in any other industrialized nation," Mauer said.

Consider Norway, Mauer said. Anders Behring Breivik, an anti-Muslim militant, killed eight people by bombing government buildings in Oslo and then fatally shooting an additional 69 at a nearby youth camp in July 2011. He was sentenced Aug. 24 to the maximum sentence Norway allows - 21 years in prison.

"Whether or not one agrees with that [sentence], it's an indication of how differently nations think about punishment," Mauer said.

Contact Dana DiFilippo at or 215-854-5934.

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