Man serving life asks for prison release

An Altoona man who committed a brutal murder 33 years ago when he was 17 years old is asking the Blair County Court to give him another chance at freedom, based on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The nation’s highest court found in Miller v. Alabama that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – covering cruel and unusual punishment – to impose an automatic life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile who had committed murder.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly in the months following the ruling changed state law to conform to the decision, eliminating a mandatory sentence for killers under 18.

But since the Miller decision, a debate has raged as to whether it should be applied to cases decided long ago, like the one against Leonard Bocchicchio of Altoona.

Bocchicchio was 17 when he entered the Penn Classic Bowling Lane in Logan Township late in the evening of Dec. 7, 1980, accompanying a young woman who wanted to call her parents to tell them she would be late coming home that evening.

While the young girl was talking, Bocchicchio picked up a bowling ball and killed the owner of the bowling alley, Elwood Figard.

It took a couple of years before the case was solved by township detectives, but in the end, Bocchicchio was convicted of first-degree murder and received an automatic sentence of life without parole.

At age 50, he remains incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale.

Late Friday morning, his court-appointed attorney, Paul M. Puskar of Hollidaysburg, filed a 22-page petition, arguing that the Miller decision should be applied retroactively.

He is asking a Blair County judge to vacate Bocchicchio’s sentence, order a new sentencing hearing and, at the most, sentence him for third-degree murder, which would likely mean Bocchicchio eventually would be freed.

Pennsylvania has more than 200 inmates serving life without parole for killings committed as juveniles.

The Miller decision does not bar life-without-parole sentences for these once-young killers, according to Puskar’s petition, but it does require that they be sentenced as individuals and not be subject to mandatory life behind bars.

The U.S. Supreme Court did not indicate if the Miller decision should apply to past cases, and in November, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that in situations involving individuals like Bocchicchio, whose cases have long been settled, that the Miller decision does not apply. Puskar, who handles post-conviction cases in Blair County, said Sunday he has conferred with the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Pittsburgh and has decided to start at the ground level in requesting retroactivity by filing the petition on behalf of Bocchicchio before the court that sentenced him.

He argued that Pennsylvania law allows such a petition to “achieve substantial justice” and that the state Supreme Court has, since Miller, sent a more recent juvenile life-with-parole case back to the county level for resentencing.

He said that unless the Miller decision is made retroactive, there will be two classes of juvenile offenders being treated differently “based on the time their convictions became final.”

He argued that, from the time of common law, the state has a history of protecting young people “against the full weight of criminal punishment.”

“Consequently, this court cannot permit this sentence to stand. Any sentence greater than authorized for third-degree murder at the time of the crimes would violate [Bocchicchio’s] due process, ex post facto and equal protection rights,” Puskar wrote.

At least one other Blair County defendant, James Franklin Rodgers, who is now 43 and serving his life-without-parole sentence at the State Correctional Institution in Somerset, is requesting the Miller decision be applied retroactively. He is being represented by a federal public defender in Pittsburgh. Rodgers was convicted of the stabbing death of 72-year-old Pasquale Lascoli during a robbery in 1988.

The Blair County District Attorney’s office will have the opportunity to answer Puskar’s petition.

Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio called the Miller decision “outrageous” when it was first published in July 2012.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.