Court upholds juvenile life sentences

By Phil Ray

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled 4-3 that a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision barring automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of murder does not apply to defendants whose cases were closed before the nation’s top court acted.

The state decision affects at least 462 Pennsylvania prison inmates, including five from the Altoona area who have served years behind bars. A number of those inmates have asked the courts to grant them the right to apply for parole, or, in the alternative, be resentenced.

In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that it was a violation of the constitutional amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment to mandate that juveniles serve life without the possibility of parole.

The court reasoned juveniles lack maturity and act on impulse; they are vulnerable to pressure by peers; and the child’s character is less developed than that of an adult.

Among the inmates hoping for a change in their sentences following the federal ruling are two from Blair County: James Franklin Rodgers, charged in 1988 with the stabbing death of an elderly Altoona man in his home during a robbery, and Leonard Bocchicchio, who used a bowling ball to kill the proprietor of a local bowling alley in 1980.

Susan McNaughton, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said that many of the inmates who might have been affected by the U.S. Supreme Court are now middle-aged. That is the case with the inmates from Blair County, Rodgers, 42, and Bocchicchio, 49.

Three other inmates seeking a change in their sentences including Jessica N. Holtmeyer, Andrew J. Callahan and Christopher L. Weatherill, were residents of Clearfield County when they committed murder.

Following the federal decision, Pennsylvania law was changed so juveniles who committed murder will be sentenced to 25 or 35 years behind bars, depending on the circumstances.

Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva this week held a status conference on the Rodgers and Bocchicchio cases but put off any decision pending the decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a case called Commonwealth v. Cunningham.

Cunningham was 17 years old in 1999 when he and others robbed occupants in a vehicle and shot a man to death.

Cunningham was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole plus 7 to 15 years in a state correctional facility.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Thomas G. Saylor pointed out in an opinion issued late Wednesday that the federal court ruling did not say whether the decision should be applied retroactively.

Attorney Kit Kinports of the Penn State Law School explained that the state’s 4-3 decision decision hinged on whether the Miller decision represented a substantive change in the law, which would require the decision to be applied retroactively, or a procedural charge, which typically means the decision would not affect closed cases.

Saylor, writing for the majority that included Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, Michael J. Eakin and Correale F. Stevens, pointed out the decision does not bar the imposition of life without parole for juvenile killers but eliminates the mandatory application of such a sentence – thus altering the procedure used to sentence juveniles.

Castille wrote a concurring opinion explaining the position in greater detail.

“Miller’s concern,” he wrote, “was not with sentence of life without parole for juveniles per se, but rather with the absolute, mandatory unavailability of parole irrespective of individualized circumstances that the High Court deemed relevant for juvenile offenders.”

Justice Max Baer, joined by Justices Debra Todd and Seamus P. McCaffery, wrote a dissent that stated, “I view Miller’s categorical bar on the mandatory imposition of life without parole for juveniles as also containing substantive attributes which would require retroactive application.”

Courts nationwide have been ruling on the question of retroactivity, some agreeing with the Pennsylvania Court and others ruling the decision applies to closed case, said Kinports.

Although nobody can predict, she said it is likely the Cunningham case or a related case will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the issue.

She said the decision for and against retroactivity has been “pretty even.”

Cunningham’s Philadelphia attorney, John P. Cotter, said Thursday, “It seemed to me it should be retroactive.”

He said he wanted to file a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Another attorney representing Cunningham, Bradley S. Bridge of the Philadelphia Defender’s Association, said he found the Pennsylvania decision “unfathomable.”

The majority, he said, concluded the Miller decision means “you have to come up with the right process.”

“That’s not the way I read the [U.S.] Supreme Court decision,” he explained.

He said the defense would possibly request U.S. Supreme Court review, but, like Cotter, he hasn’t yet talked to Cunningham.

Bridge said he believes there are 520 “juvenile lifers” in the state prison system.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.