Sunday, July 13, 2014

OTHER OPINION: YOUNG KILLERS Old murder cases deserve new look

November 07. 2013 11:31PM
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The fate of nearly 500 state inmates had been in limbo since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year it’s unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The state Supreme Court last week attempted clarify the situation — but the 4-3 decision was not what some of these prisoners were hoping to hear. Wednesday’s ruling denies new sentencing hearings to those juvenile killers whose appeals ran out prior to June 2012, when the nation’s high court announced its decision.

In Pennsylvania, those convicted of first- and second-degree murder automatically receive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

But about a year ago, the Pennsylvania Legislature changed state law to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate. The state now gives county judges the option of sentencing teens to as little as 25 years in prison for first-degree murder and at least 20 years for second-degree murder.

But the change applied only to new cases, leaving unclear the status of 460 inmates serving life without parole for first- and second-degree murders committed when they were juveniles.

In our opinion, each of those inmates deserves a new sentencing hearing, and the state Supreme Court’s ruling merely prolongs the legal battles.

Indeed, attorney Norris Gelman says he intends to appeal the decision and expects others to do the same. Gelman represents Zachary Witman, who was found guilty of fatally stabbing his 13-year-old brother, Greg Witman, in 1998. Witman, now 30, is not eligible for a resentencing hearing, according to the state Supreme Court’s decision.

Gelman compares these inmates, some who have spent decades in prison since their youthful crimes, to prisoners who were sitting on death row when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1976.

“(E)veryone had their death sentences vacated and were given life sentences,” he said. “There was no discussion about retroactivity. … The Supreme Court meant what (it) said.”

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney praised the state court’s ruling, noting his office now won’t have to re-litigate 10 cases.

However, this isn’t about convenience; it’s about justice. The high court based its ruling on recent research showing the brains of those under 18 have not fully developed, and they lack the mental capacity to understand the consequences of their actions. To condemn them to life in prison, without the possibility of parole after they mature, violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

So, it makes little sense that the ruling would not be applied retroactively.

As Gelman said of automatic life sentences for juveniles: “It’s unconstitutional now, and it was unconstitutional when it was imposed.”

The attorney said he expects the Supreme Court to eventually reverse the state court’s decision and mandate resentencing hearings for all juvenile murderers.

We don’t see the harm in that. The 2012 high court decision specifically said juveniles could be sentenced to life without parole; the ruling merely stated the punishment could not be applied automatically.

So every one of the 460 inmates affected conceivably might still live out his life behind bars.

But these old cases deserve a second look in the same light new cases are being viewed.

The York Dispatch

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