HARRISBURG — A divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that juveniles convicted of murder who were automatically sentenced to life without parole before that penalty was barred by the nation’s highest court will not be resentenced if their cases were finalized before the ruling.
The 4-3 ruling Wednesday by the Pennsylvania high court, long awaited by prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, means about 460 people in commonwealth prisons may never get parole.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2012 that automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but the court didn’t say whether the decision could be applied to defendants who had already exhausted all of their appeals.
In an appeal by Ian Cunningham of Philadelphia, who was convicted of killing a man during a robbery when he was 17, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling doesn’t apply in Cunningham’s case.
The three justices in the minority said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling should apply retroactively but shouldn’t be interpreted “as a suggestion that life without parole should not be imposed on this appellant or any other juvenile murder.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas Saylor wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t preclude life without parole for juveniles but simply sets out a new sentencing procedure to determine if such a penalty is appropriate. Under the changes, a sentencing judge must consider a juvenile’s age, level of maturity, family and home environment, the extent of participation in the crime, the impact of family and peer pressure and the possibility of rehabilitation.
The commonwealth, which argued against retroactivity, called the decision by the high court only a procedural change. Attorneys for Cunningham argued that once a new rule is applied, “evenhanded justice requires that it be applied retroactively to all who are similarly situated.”
Had the court ruled the other way, hundreds of prisoners would be eligible for new sentencing hearings, said Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which filed appeals on behalf of a number of prisoners.
But in a concurring opinion agreeing with the majority, Chief Justice Ronald Castille criticized the high court for not dealing with the question of retroactivity and suggested that the Pennsylvania General Assembly address the issue.
Several states such as Iowa, Mississippi and Illinois have deemed the high court’s ruling retroactive, while others such as like Minnesota, Michigan and Florida have said it is not.
University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff, however, said he doubts that this will be the last word on the subject.
“I think that the U.S. Supreme Court will want to weigh in on this issue, and that there’s every chance that this decision will be reversed,” he said.