Under new Supreme Court ruling, Pa. high court ponders fates of teen lifers

Posted: September 14, 2012

Patricia Moore Grant said that when she saw her brother Richard last week, he was optimistic, a state of mind perhaps understood only by a 42-year-old man who has been serving a no-parole life sentence since he was 14.

On Wednesday, Grant seemed also to be a believer.

"I think we're going to have a positive outcome," Grant said with a grin as the six sitting justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court left their ornate City Hall courtroom after 90 minutes of argument about what to do with more than 400 inmates - Richard Moore among them - serving life without parole for murders committed before they were 18.

All the Pennsylvania inmates - and about 2,500 more in 27 other states - were given fresh hope of some day getting out of prison on June 25, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life terms without parole were unconstitutional for convicted killers who committed their crime as juveniles.

Deciding cases out of Alabama and Arkansas, the nation's high court ruled that juveniles must get a sentencing hearing where they could present mitigating evidence based on their background. Otherwise, the court said, life without parole violates the Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court now has the thorny task of implementing the high court's decision, creating a process to review the cases of teen lifers within a judicial-governmental framework that has no provision or standards for paroling people serving life for murder.

A standing-room-only crowd packed the courtroom far beyond its 174-person capacity. At least a dozen were, like Grant, relatives of former teens now serving life sentences.

The justices held the cases for further study. They gave no indication when they might rule and were not under any deadline. Nor did they hint at their possible solution: new sentencing hearings, a chance for parole board review, or some new alternative.

Two prosecutors who argued before the court Wednesday said the justices didn't need to do anything.

"There's not really any need for resentencings," said Terence P. Houck, Northampton County's first assistant district attorney, who prosecuted the lead case before the justices: Qu'eed Batts, the 14-year-old Easton resident convicted of a 2006 street-gang-initiation killing who is serving life without parole.

"What is the authority to do that?" Justice J. Michael Eakin asked Houck.

Eakin noted that current state law prohibits parole officials from considering cases of people serving life for murder - juvenile or adult. Moreover, Eakin said, the parole board cannot consider a case until the inmate serves the minimum sentence, and under Pennsylvania law, the minimum for first- and second-degree murder is life.

"What are we to tell the sentencing judges to determine when it's legal to parole in these cases when all the statutes are contrary?" Eakin asked.

Several justices said they were troubled by the prospect of having to take actions usually the purview of the state legislature.

And Hugh Burns, chief of appeals in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, argued that many of the teen lifers may not be eligible for resentencing because the court's own rules bar inmates from benefiting from new court rulings if they have already begun their second-tier appeals under the Post Conviction Relief Act.

"But that's our policy," interrupted Justice Seamus McCaffery. "We can change our policy - we make the rules."

Justice Max Baer said he also was troubled by excluding any group of teen lifers from relief because the U.S. Supreme Court "has already said they are serving illegal sentences."

Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, who argued the appeal for Batts, suggested converting the sentences of all juvenile lifers to 20 to 40 years in prison, the penalty for third-degree murder.

That option would require the least tinkering with state law and government machinery, Levick said, and would let the parole board review cases after the inmates served a significant prison term.

Philadelphia public defender Bradley S. Bridge, representing the other state teen lifers in a consolidated companion appeal, sympathized with the justices, calling all the possible solutions "bad to worse."

The good thing about Levick's suggestion, Bridge added, is that it resolves the cases of the those current inmates serving unconstitutional sentences: "We know how to deal with this."

Pennsylvania has the largest population of teen lifers: 480, about 350 from Philadelphia, including a quarter of the 80 inmates nationwide serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were 14 or younger.

Houck, the Northampton County prosecutor, argued as an advocate for the families of murder victims, telling the justices survivors "deserved closure" and did not need to relive the crime in new sentencing hearings.

He argued that many former teens serving life should be. Houck said Batts, now 20, killed his victim in cold blood as part of a gang initiation: "He earned and deserved his sentence."

Levick, however, said the prison population included many former teenagers sentenced to life because they were driving the car in which the killer rode, or were part of a group involved in a robbery gone awry.

Richard Moore is one of them. In a 1986 nonjury trial, a Philadelphia judge found Moore, then 14, and brothers Norman and Kenneth Bryant, ages 15 and 18, guilty of second-degree murder in the break-in at a Southwest Philadelphia home and sentenced all three to the mandatory life in prison without parole.

The homeowner in the break-in, an 81-year-old woman, had a fatal heart attack when the three teens surprised her.

Patricia Moore Grant said her brother was in the state prison at Mahanoy in Northeastern Pennsylvania. He has earned his high school diploma and several advanced degrees, been trained as an electrician and in other trades, and survived a brain aneurysm and "27 years in the prison without ever going to the hole."

"Teenagers do a lot of stupid things, but they grow up and learn," said Grant, who works as a state prison guard. "I know I did."

Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian

at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @joeslobo.

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