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The end of life without parole for juveniles in Philadelphia?

Over the last few decades, Philadelphia has become known as the juvenile-lifer capital of the world, home to 300 people sentenced as teens to die in prison.

Tyrone Jones with (from left) niece Michelle Jones, sister Ruth Margo Gee, niece Chandler Jones, and mother Beulah Jones, who died in 2012. Now 59, he was given life for a gang-related execution in 1973.
Tyrone Jones with (from left) niece Michelle Jones, sister Ruth Margo Gee, niece Chandler Jones, and mother Beulah Jones, who died in 2012. Now 59, he was given life for a gang-related execution in 1973.Read more

Over the last few decades, Philadelphia has become known as the juvenile-lifer capital of the world, home to 300 people sentenced as teens to die in prison.

That era is rapidly drawing to a close.

Two men locked up since the 1970s received new sentences Friday, making them eligible for parole immediately. It marks the start of a resentencing process in the city that could take up to three years.

By the end of it, District Attorney Seth Williams expects almost no juveniles will be sentenced to life without parole - a fate the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama in 2012 must be "uncommon," reserved for the "rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption." (This January, in the case Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court mandated the ruling be applied retroactively.)

Instead, Williams told the Inquirer he'll be seeking sentences of between 20 and 35 years to life for all cases, depending on the age and nature of the crime.

"It's my goal to give all of these individuals some light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "As long as I'm the D.A., we will not be asking for cases going forward for life without the possibility of parole for people under the age of 18 because of the same exact reasons articulated by the Supreme Court in Miller."

Philadelphia's judges, prosecutors and defenders, and state parole and corrections officials have been meeting since January to establish a process for handling cases.

Now, for the first time, there is some clarity.

Philadelphia's courts have established a framework and designated judges to expedite these cases, and imposed a brisk timeline for resentencings to be completed. And the city has allocated $1.5 million to prosecutors and defenders for the first year of work. The Defender Association of Philadelphia will represent about 225 lifers, assistant defender Bradley Bridge said.

And, though no constitutional sentence applies to the cases, Williams now says he'll be guided by the state law created after Miller, which sets minimum sentences at 35 years to life for first-degree murders committed at age 15, 16, or 17, and 25 to life for murders by children 14 and younger.

He aims to address the oldest cases first: About 100 of the city's juvenile lifers have been incarcerated at least 30 years. The oldest, Joseph Ligon, has been in for 63 years.

But Bridge expects many of them will be skeptical of the deal Williams described.

"One significant difficulty with a sentence that has 'life' on the maximum end is that people would be subject to parole from the state parole board, and there's no guarantee that the board will ever grant parole," he said. Any sentence that hinges on the whims of the parole board "is unacceptable to the vast majority of juvenile lifers with whom I've had contact."

Still, the two men who took deals Friday, making them the first to be resentenced in Philadelphia, will take their chances.

One is Henry Smolarski, 53, who was 17 and a student at St. Joe's Prep in 1979 when he stabbed Neal Sherman, a Temple freshman, on South Street. He later claimed he thought Sherman was a man who had earlier robbed and assaulted him.

Burton Rose, Smolarski's lawyer, said his client had never had a misconduct in 37 years in prison.

At the hearing, 20 of Smolarski's family and friends, including men who had been locked up with him, wept as he apologized to Sherman's brother, Ralph, and hugged as the judge imposed his new sentence.

Ralph Sherman was moved after learning of Smolarski's remorse and reading letters from the fathers of other inmates, who called Smolarski a role model.

Also resentenced was Tyrone Jones, 59, convicted of the gang-related execution of 17-year-old Henry Harrison in North Philadelphia in 1973; he's been claiming his innocence in court for years. His conviction was based on a confession that conflicted with key facts of the crime.

But his lawyers focused on what Jones has done since: He earned his GED in prison, became a skilled electrician, and has been a "model inmate." He remained close with his sisters, including Ruth Margo Gee, of Jackson, N.C., who plans to take him in if he's released.

Harrison's sister, Edith Harris, did not oppose the resentencing, according to Assistant District Attorney Chesley Lightsey.

The two will not be the first juvenile lifers up for parole in Pennsylvania, where about 500 inmates are eligible for new sentences - and face radically differing interpretations of the law.

Five men in Chester County already have been resentenced to "time served to life," meaning they'll be considered for parole this summer.

In other cases, including one in Lehigh County, prosecutors have said they intend to seek life without parole yet again.

Still other cases are on hold pending guidance from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which in April agreed to hear an appeal on behalf of Qu'eed Batts, a juvenile lifer whose sentence was vacated after Miller, but who was resentenced in Northampton County to life without parole in 2014.

The court will consider questions that could be important in guiding how resentencing hearings are carried out, including whether there should be mechanisms to ensure life without parole is uncommon, such as requiring prosecutors to prove irreparable corruption beyond a reasonable doubt.

Marsha Levick, chief counsel with the Juvenile Law Center, has been working on the case, and expects arguments in the fall and a decision in 2017.

"It's really trying to put the meat on the bones of what the Supreme Court said in both Miller and Montgomery," she said.

Berks County District Attorney John Adams said the nine cases in his county were on hold until the Supreme Court makes that decision.

"We have no statutory direction at this point," he said. "I would like to get some direction from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court so we don't end up doing these over and over again. . . . We want to make sure we get this right."

Adams said he has time, because the longest-serving lifer from Berks County has served just 31 years.

In Philadelphia, there is some pressure to move more quickly.

Williams, who has a team of four - an assistant district attorney, a victim advocate, a detective, and a clerk - assigned to the cases, aims to process about three cases per week. He said he won't rule out life without parole in the most heinous cases, but he has taken heed of the Supreme Court's opinion, in Miller, that neuroscience shows teens' brains are not fully formed, reducing their culpability.

He's also noted pressure from advocates for both victims and inmates.

"I've got a lot of people who are tweeting every day about juvenile lifers without parole," he said. Bridge, the defender, said the pace Williams described may be too ambitious; he'll likely be ready to move forward with a number of cases by late summer. How the parole board handles early cases will likely inform future negotiations. But in many cases he's hoping to find alternative solutions.

"When we are considering people who have been in prison for three, four, five, or six decades, there does not seem to be much of a point in placing them on parole or even requiring them to see the parole board," Bridge said. "Justice requires that they be released from prison as soon as possible and monitored on probation to make sure they have appropriate reentry services."

Whether on probation or parole, many will need long-term assistance. Bridge said, among his clients, some have family support but others will be leaving prison in their 60s or 70s with scant resources and no investment in Social Security.

"We have to come up with a reasonable plan to provide services to people, to make sure they're appropriately protected and make sure the public is well-protected also."



Rolling Back Juvenile Life Without Parole


June 25, 2012

In "Miller v. Alabama," the U.S. Supreme Court calls mandatory life-without-parole sentencing for juveniles a violation of the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Life without parole should be reserved, the court said, for "uncommon" cases of crimes that reflect "irreparable corruption."

Oct. 25, 2012

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signs into law a new sentencing scheme for juveniles convicted of murder in Pennsylvania: a minimum of 35 years to life for those 15 and older, or 25 years to life for those younger than 15, convicted of first-degree murder. For second-degree murder - participating in a felony in which a death occurs - it's a minimum of 30 to life for those 15 and older, and 20 to life for those younger than 15.

March 26, 2013

In "Batts v. Pennsylvania," the Pennsylvania Supreme Court says "Miller" applies to inmates still in the process of appealing their convictions.

Oct. 30, 2013

In "Cunningham v. Pennsylvania," the state Supreme Court declines to apply "Miller" retroactively for lifers who had exhausted their appeals before "Miller" was decided.

Jan. 25, 2016

In "Montgomery v. Louisiana," the U.S. Supreme Court says states must apply "Miller" retroactively.

June 3, 2016

The first two juvenile lifers in Philadelphia receive new sentences of 35 years to life, making them immediately eligible for parole.EndText