Mandatory life sentences upheld

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva refused Wednesday to extend a U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles to young adults.

Appeals attorney Tim Burns asked Kopriva to hold hearings and grant four former Blair County residents, who were young adults when they committed murder, the chance of parole.

Each of them is serving life without parole.

The landmark case, Miller v. Alabama, was clear that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers was found to be unconstitutional because they violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment,” Kopriva ruled.

Blair County Deputy District Attorney Wade Kagarise argued that the Supreme Court was specific in that it was barring life without parole only for individuals under 18 years of age.

Kagarise asked the judge to dismiss the post-conviction petitions filed by Burns and Kopriva did just that.

In terms of her authority as a Common Pleas Court judge, Kopriva said, “We can’t change the law.”

If there is to be a change, it will come from a court “higher than this court,” she said.

Burns is representing four people who have contacted the court to challenge their sentences and win the right to at least have the opportunity for parole.

They include Kristin Edmundson and Marie Seilhamer, both convicted of killing Shari Lee Jackson, 24, of Hollidaysburg; Christopher Yon, who killed 74-year-old Arlene Piper; and Lee I. Green, whose case goes back to 1978 for the murder of a friend, 23-year-old Gerald Westbrook.

When they committed the murders, the convicted killers ranged from 19 to 23 years old.

The federal decision banning mandatory life without parole for those under 18 was based on the argument that juveniles “are more vulnerable … to negative influences and outside pressures, including from their family and peers; they have limited control over their own environment and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.”

The Supreme Court concluded that juveniles are not mature enough to have an appreciation of their actions as would an adult.

Burns, however, made the argument that the issue of maturity extends beyond the age of 18.

What is the difference between someone a day before his 18th birthday and a day after his 18th birthday?, Burns asked.

Kagarise insisted the Supreme Court didn’t rule that all people of an immature mind were protected from life-without-parole. The court limited its opinion to juveniles.

Burns can appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Superior Court but did not say he would.

But the Miller decision does focus on what part mental health issues play with respect to crime, and those types of issues will become more prevalent, Burns said.

“The door has been opened by the very significant Supreme Court decision,” Burns said.

Shari Jackson’s mother, Robin, attended Wednesday’s hearing. She had no comment.

Yon’s father and Seilhamer’s parents were also in attendance.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.