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Top Pa. court redefines juvenile law

Procedures scrapped that protected minors who committed murder from life without parole

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a ruling last week scrapped procedures it mandated during the past decade to protect juveniles who committed murder from receiving inapproprate life without parole sentences.

Five justices from Pennsylvania’s highest court ruled that a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued last April made Pennsylvania’s sentencing scheme for juvenile offenders charged with murder ineffective and stated, “Consequently, we are left with no choice but to dissolve those procedural requirements … that are not constitutionally required.”

Those procedures included a requirement that there is a presumption against sentencing a juvenile convicted of murder to life without parole and that the prosecution in seeking a sentence of life without parole must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the juvenile is “permanently incorrigible,” meaning that rehabilitation is out of the question.

These and a plethora of other requirements were implemented by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders were unconstitutional.

That decision, Miller v. Alabama, was followed by a decision in 2016, Montgomery v. Louisiana, that made the Miller case retroactive, meaning that it applied to past cases in which persons under 18 years old received mandatory sentences of life without parole.

It also meant many Pennsylvania prisoners, who had already served decades behind bars, were entitled to be resentenced.

Two of the life without parole inmates included James “Frankie” Rodgers, who was convicted of stabbing to death an elderly Altoona man, Pasquale J. Lascoli, in 1988, and Leonard Bocchicchio, who murdered 75-year-old Elwood Figard in 1980.

Both have been resentenced, Rodgers to a 40-year minimum and Bocchicchio to a 35-year minimum.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in reviewing the juvenile law that was designed to implement the Miller prohibition against mandatory life without parole sentences, was recently presented with the question whether a 50-year minimum sentence for murder imposed on a Philadelphia teen, Michael Felder, who fatally shot another youth during a pickup basketball game, was a “de facto” life without parole sentence — a violation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, aware of a ruling last April by the U.S. Supreme Court in Mississippi v. Brett Jones, decided that Felder’s sentence was constitutional.

The Jones decision concluded that a life without parole sentence for a juvenile convicted of homicide was improper only if the life without parole sentence was mandatory and did not give a judge discretion when considering the facts of the case and the characteristics of the juvenile.

In the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision issued in the past week, Justice Kevin Dougherty pointed out that Pennsylvania’s protections for juveniles “were not intended to enlarge any substantive rights of juvenile homicide offenders.”

Instead, the high court procedures were meant to ensure life without parole sentences were meted out only to the juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect “permanent incorrigibility, irreparable corruption and irretrievable depravity,” the Dougherty decision stated.

The Jones case, however, stated that as long as the sentence imposed on the juvenile is part of a discretionary sentencing scheme that includes the juvenile’s youth, a life without parole sentence meets the constitutional requirements laid down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dougherty’s opinion in the Felder case was joined by Chief Justice Max Baer and Justices Debra Todd, Sallie Updyke Mundy.

Justice Christine Donohue entered a concurring opinion, while Justice David N. Wecht dissented.

Wecht believed that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recommended sentencing procedures could survive the Jones decision and disagreed with the decision to scrap the mandates issued by the Pennsylvania court.

He stated the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had the authority to “exercise its constitutional authority.”

Felder is now 29 years old and is serving his sentence in the State Correctional Institution at Frackville.

He currently will not be eligible for parole until he is 68 years old.

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