Two months after the U.S. Supreme Court restricted life in prison without parole for juveniles, a team of Philadelphia attorneys yesterday filed petitions for relief on behalf of five juvenile lifers desperate for a second chance at life.
Many of the 2,000 juvenile lifers nationally are flooding courts with requests for reconsidered sentences in the wake of the high court's May 17 ruling which found that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for any crime short of homicide.
Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of juvenile lifers, with more than 450. Yesterday was the deadline for Pennsylvania's juvenile lifers who have already exhausted appeals to apply for relief under this "new law," said attorney Bradley Bridge.
Most juvenile lifers - more than 90 percent nationally and all of those in Pennsylvania - have murder convictions, so it would seem the high court's ruling wouldn't apply to them.
But their advocates have latched onto language in the federal ruling in which the justices argued that juveniles have limited moral culpability for their criminal actions because their adolescent brains aren't as fully developed as adults'.
Bridge said the justices "talk about the fact that children are different than adults. Well, children are different from adults whether they're charged with a murder or whether they're charged with a robbery.
"We are not suggesting here that any of these people should automatically be released. All we are contending is that they should be entitled to be considered for parole," he added. "They should have the opportunity to prove that they have learned and grown and changed."
Not everyone agrees.
"It's a slippery slope," said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, of Chicago, co-founder of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers.
"I personally supported this ruling, because I don't think life-without-parole for juveniles for a non-murder is appropriate."
But with a crime as heinous as homicide, the courts should weigh the rights of victims more heavily than those of offenders, said Bishop-Jenkins, whose pregnant sister and brother-in-law were shot to death by a 16-year-old in 1990.
"Victims also have rights," she said. "Victims have a right not to be revictimized, not to be tortured for the rest of their lives, and it does literally torture victims to have to go to parole hearings every two years or deal with a reopened case."
A number of juvenile lifers already have filed petitions for relief, including Stacey Torrance, whose case was championed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in a 2005 report on the subject. Torrance was 14 when he helped plan a North Philadelphia robbery in 1988; his adult cousin and another man killed the victim.
The juvenile lifers who filed for relief yesterday include:
* Tamika Bell. Bell was 16 when she and a friend robbed three people in a car parked at Penn's Landing in September 1995. Her friend shot the driver, Max Broyko, to death, and then both girls fled. Bell is now 31.
* Aaron Phillips. Phillips was 17 when he and two adult friends robbed a man in 1986 in Montgomery County. Phillips, now 41, and his accomplices were unarmed, but one of the robbers pushed the victim to the ground during the robbery. The victim died 18 days later from heart disease, but a coroner blamed the stress of the robbery as a contributing cause of death, prompting Phillips' arrest for murder.
* Sharon Wiggins. Wiggins, now 59, was 17, mentally ill and a drug addict when she and two teenage friends robbed a Harrisburg bank at gunpoint in December 1968. Wiggins and an accomplice both shot a customer who tried to stop the robbery.
* John Pace. Pace was 17 when he tried to rob a man in September 1985. Pace, now 42, hit his victim, Randolph Baldwin, repeatedly with a blackjack, and Baldwin died 10 days later.