Across Pennsylvania, some inmates serving mandatory life sentences, their families and the survivors of their victims are waiting for a state court ruling. They hope it will clarify a year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision banning automatic life sentences for juveniles. There are 522 Pennsylvania inmates hoping it will mean they might not die in prison.
Ruth Margo Gee's brother Tyrone Jones is one of them. He has been in prison since 1973 for the murder of a man in North Philadelphia — a crime he says he did not commit. Gee says a year ago, when the Supreme Court ruling came down, the mood in the prison was upbeat. People were congratulating her brother, because suddenly there was a chance he could get out one day.
Now, one year later, she says, "Hope is what we're living off of now."
Waiting for a decision
Why has nothing changed in a year? The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has heard oral arguments about Ian Cunningham, a Philadelphia man serving a mandatory life sentence for a crime he committed as a teenager. But the court has not ruled in his case.
Marsha Levick, with the Juvenile Law Center, says many of Pennsylvania's juvenile lifers have been in prison for three decades.
"Because we don't yet have a decision, it means that the roughly 520 juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania are really in limbo," Levick said. "They are still waiting to see whether or not they will be entitled to resentencing hearings."
Levick says if the juvenile lifers are given new sentencing hearings, it will be important to present information not just about the crime but also about what's happened since — in terms of their maturity and rehabilitation.
'Can't go back in history'
Families who were on the other side of the courtroom are also closely following what's happening. Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, says victims' families are concerned about applying a ruling retroactively. Her sister was shot to death in 1990 in Illinois by a 16-year-old.
"We are sharing the view of the legal experts that we talk to that this should not be applied retroactively, because you really can't go back in history and have due process," Bishop-Jenkins said. "In many cases, you're talking about reopening a sentencing hearing that's decades old where witnesses are dead, records are gone. Many of these cases were before the digital age — there were only paper records."
In addition, Bishop-Jenkins says, revisiting life-without-parole sentences would traumatize families all over again.
"Victims' families deserve legal finality," she said. "They deserve not to have to constantly be re-engaging for the rest of their lives, decade after decade, with the very violent person who killed and murdered their loves ones intentionally. It's been a very difficult process for these families."
Prosecutors are also very interested in whether they will have to start preparing for new sentencing hearings. Courts across the country have been wrestling with this question and have split on whether to apply the ruling retroactively. The supreme courts in Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts have yet to decide the issue.
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