Pennsylvania is battleground for implementing Supreme Court ruling on young lifers
August 15, 2012By Elizabeth Fiedler
In a way these new sentencing hearings will likely look something like the penalty phase in death penalty cases where we expect that these individuals will have the opportunity certainly to present mitigating evidence of who they are today, what they have experienced, what their lives have been like in prison, individuals would be able to testify on their behalf.
-- Marsha Levick, Juvenile Law Center
A recent United States Supreme Court decision striking down mandatory life terms for juveniles has touched off a flurry of activity across the country. But in no state is the pressure greater, than right here in Pennsylvania. Lawyers are advising about 500 Pennsylvania prisoners to file requests for new sentencing hearings before the end of next week.
Bradley Bridge has received more than 200 letters from prisoners in the past two months, asking about the Supreme Court ruling.
"The letters are all pretty much the same," said Bridge. "They're saying: 'I heard about this case from the United States Supreme Court, does it apply to me and what do I need to do?'"
Bridge is with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Like other juvenile lifer supporters, he believes the ruling applies to inmates already behind bars. For those people, Bridge says, the clock is ticking.
"If there's a new case from the United States Supreme Court that renders what happened before - sentencing or a conviction - invalid, under Pennsylvania law you have a window of 60 days to petition the court to re-open your case," he said. "Other states have much longer. Some states have a year."
While juvenile lifers and their advocates are rushing to beat the deadline, Ruth "Margo" Gee continues to wait. For her the Supreme Court decision is personal -- her brother Tyrone Jones has lived behind bars for nearly four decades. He was convicted of first-degree murder for a fatal shooting in North Philadelphia that happened when he was 16. Gee says she believes her brother's claim: that he's innocent.
"He's lost his life. He was 16. He has no idea what life is other than prison," said Gee.
Sitting in her mother's home in Philadelphia, surrounded by family photographs, Gee says her brother's a good guy who deserves his freedom. On a recent trip, Gee says it was clear news of the Supreme Court ruling had permeated prison walls.
"The whole place is excited. Everybody's going around: 'Congratulations Ty, Go Ty.' And he's just got a lot of hope now. He had hope before but now he's like: 'There's Light!' I mean he knows it might not be tomorrow," said Gee.
There's no guarantee Tyrone Jones will get a new sentencing hearing at all.
Scott Burns is the Executive Director of the National District Attorney's Association.
"We'll fight it case-by-case. I don't think it is or should be retro-active," said Burns. "Families of victims of juvenile murderers are coordinating. They're doing everything they can to motivate prosecutors and others to challenge each and every one of these cases to make sure a conviction is preserved -- a sentence is preserved."
Burns says in thinking about the prisoners, it's important to remember the horrific crimes.
"We're talking about somebody two weeks short of their 18th birthday car jacks a mother, shoots her in the head, drives down the road," he said. "Before police can get there has shot her 8 and 7-year-old son and daughter in the head. And they call him a child and they say it's cruel and unusual punishment that this child would be subjected to the rest of his life in prison."
Because Pennsylvania inmates face a short deadline to seek new sentencing hearings, and there are many questions about could receive them, other states are watching Pennsylvania closely.
And even if Pennsylvania's current juvenile lifers are granted new sentencing hearings, the Juvenile Law Center's Marsha Levick says there will still be a lot of work to do on their cases.
"In a way these new sentencing hearings will likely look something like the penalty phase in death penalty cases where we expect that these individuals will have the opportunity certainly to present mitigating evidence of who they are today, what they have experienced, what their lives have been like in prison, individuals would be able to testify on their behalf," said Levick.
So even if someone like Tyrone Jones is awarded an opportunity for a new sentencing hearing, it could take months or maybe even years for him to get his new day in court.