After 43 years in prison for a West Chester purse snatching that became a murder when the victim fell and died from the injuries, Earl Rice Jr., 60, finally had the chance to go before the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole this week.
The board's decision: 43 years was long enough for a crime committed when Rice was just 17 years old.
Rice and three other men, including two from Philadelphia, were all approved for parole this week, making them the first people in Pennsylvania convicted of first or second degree murder ever to be granted parole. All were juvenile lifers given new sentences as a consequence of Montgomery v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court decision this January that made retroactive the court's ban on automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.
Brad Bridge, who has been working on juvenile lifer cases for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said the decisions will likely affect how hundreds of other juvenile lifer cases across the state proceed. In Philadelphia, District Attorney Seth Williams intends for parole to be the primary gateway for release for the city's 280 juvenile lifers. Until now, many inmates and advocates have been hesitant to accept new sentences that hinge on parole, because of uncertainty about how the parole board would handle the cases.
With these decisions, Bridge said, "The parole board recognized that after multiple decades, children that went into prison grew up, matured, and are ready to become contributing members of society. This is exactly the paradigm shift the United States Supreme Court envisioned."
Rice's lawyer, Norris Gelman, said Rice's family is "absolutely overjoyed." Rice has been working at Graterford prison, but outside the walls, tending to the hospice unit. "He's very good with terminal patients," Gelman said.
Like other juvenile lifers, he expects to spend time in a Community Corrections Center, a halfway house. After that, Rice intends to live with his father, Earl Sr., and his fiancee Doreen St. John in Delaware.
"His father's elderly, very old, maybe 90," Gelman said.
Chris Edward Jordan, 52, a Chester County juvenile lifer, also was granted parole, while Brian Hooper, 54, of Chester County was denied parole. Hooper and Jordan were both convicted in the 1980 shooting of a man who they thought would implicate them in a burglary. Hooper was the shooter and Jordan was his accomplice, according to the Daily Local News.
Two men from Philadelphia, Henry Smolarski, 53, and Tyrone Jones, 59, were granted parole. Jones, who has argued his innocence for decades, plans to live with his sister in North Carolina. Smolarski stabbed a Temple student on South Street. Jones was convicted of a gang-related execution in North Philadelphia.
"It's really a remarkable day, considering he's been thinking about this for years," said Hayes Hunt, a lawyer with Cozen O'Connor who has been representing Jones pro bono. "He's going to be outside a prison for the first time in his adult life."
Hunt said this is the beginning of a long process of reentry.
"It's going to take a lot of social and legal services to help him," he said. "He hasn't cooked for himself. These basic fundamental life skills, he doesn't have. The tallest building in Philadelphia was still [City Hall, topped with the statue of] William Penn when he went to prison. It's a very different world he's going to have to learn to live in."