The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said this week that a constitutional challenge to sentencing people to mandatory life in prison without parole for second-degree murder must be dealt with through an appeals process. individually, not by the Commonwealth Court.
Six people sentenced to life without parole for what is known as felony murder – the death of a person during the commission of a crime – filed parole applications in May 2020 with the Parole Board state conditions.
Each request was denied because, under Pennsylvania law, anyone serving a sentence for second-degree murder is not eligible for early release.
The six individuals then filed a petition against the board in Commonwealth Court, alleging that their sentences amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by federal and state law.
Two of the people have since had their sentences commuted by the National Parole Board.
The plaintiffs argued that the Commonwealth Court was the appropriate venue for their petition, as they were challenging state law which prohibits life parole – not the validity of their individual sentences.
In May 2021, the Commonwealth Court issued a 20-page opinion dismissing the lawsuit. The court said challenges should be heard in an appeals process for each individual defendant.
In a 34-page majority opinion on Wednesday, the High Court upheld the earlier ruling, finding that the challenge to the life sentence without parole should be dealt with through appeals under the Post Aid Act. -conviction.
Bret Grote, the director of the Abolitionist Law Center who advocated on behalf of the petitioners, said the fight would continue.
“While we are disappointed that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has declined to consider this legal challenge through this procedural vehicle, this case has prepared them for an eventual decision on this pressing constitutional issue,” he said. .
The motion filed in the Commonwealth Court was not seeking a re-conviction for all prisoners serving a life sentence without parole for second degree murder. Instead, he sought to enable them to have the ability to become eligible for parole.
In its opinion, the state Supreme Court said what the plaintiffs sought was not in the Commonwealth Court, whose jurisdiction includes cases involving regulators, state and local governments, and challenges to Pennsylvania law.
As has been suggested on several occasions during the oral argument in this case and a companion case currently in state superior court, the Pennsylvania legislature may address the issue of life without parole for second-degree murder.
In a footnote to the opinion, the majority went on to say exactly that.
“Nothing we’re saying today is about ‘the ability of the General Assembly to extend parole eligibility to lifers with a simple amendment to the parole code.'”
But in a dissenting opinion, Judge David N. Wecht wrote that his colleagues in the majority made that effort more difficult with their opinion.
“Many vexing political questions surround Pennsylvania’s treatment of second-degree murderers,” Wecht wrote. “The majority’s blurring of the distinction between a sentencing judgment and the parole code will make any attempt to resolve these issues much more difficult for the policy-making branches in years to come.”
In his opinion, Wecht notes that people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania make up about 10% of the state’s prison population – the highest rate in the country. Of these, he continued, around 1,100 of them are second degree despite the fact that “many of them did not intentionally kill anyone.
“The (court’s) decision … is not just a harmless judicial review,” Wecht said. “The majority’s decision will also have very real and regrettable consequences for future political reforms that have been in the works for decades.”
Paula Reed Ward is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Paula by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .