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For juvenile lifers, Philly courts set a tough path forward

The court rejected defense lawyers' arguments on questions including whether the lifers must be resentenced under the lesser third-degree murder statute, and whether they have the right to a jury.

Philadelphia is home to the nation's largest population of juveniles serving life in prison without parole, and all 300 of them are getting a new day in court following a pair of Supreme Court decisions that found their sentences were illegal and must be replaced.

Now, a panel of three Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judges has charted the path those resentencings will follow. It will be an uncertain one for the lifers, all convicted of first- or second-degree murder.

The court rejected defense lawyers' arguments on all but one of 15 questions of law -- including whether the lifers must be resentenced under the lesser third-degree murder statute, whether they have the right to a jury at resentencing, and whether a maximum sentence of life would be illegal. It agreed only that defendants should receive advance notice if prosecutors will seek life without parole once again at their resentencings.

The judges, Kathryn Streeter-Lewis, Jeffrey Minehart, and Barbara McDermott, wrote that they were carefully adhering to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's narrow interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama, which found automatic-life-without-parole sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.

"At this time, we are constrained to adopt a narrow view of Miller unless and until our appellate courts, or the legislature, directs otherwise," they wrote.

Bradley Bridge, who is coordinating the defense of about 225 juvenile lifers for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said that goes against the intention of the U.S. Supreme Court to clear the way for a broad paradigm change in a series of decisions that first banned the death penalty for juveniles, then banned life without parole in nonhomicide cases, and finally banned automatic life sentences altogether.

"You can be on the wrong side of paradigm change," he said.

The judges left other questions open-ended.

They found, for example,  that it was allowable to use as a guide the state law adopted in 2012, after the Miller decision, setting minimums of 35 years to life  for 15- to 17-year-old defendants in first-degree cases and 30 years to life in second-degree cases. But they did not indicate that judges hearing such cases would in fact follow those guidelines.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has been offering deals that, for the most part, fit that sentencing matrix.

The office said in a statement that it was grateful for the judges' decision and that it would clear the way for expeditious resentencing. 

"We will continue to analyze each case individually and carefully, as we have done for the past year, and strive for the imposition of a fair and just sentence," the statement read.

Bridge, on the other hand, suggested the result may slow the resentencing process, in part because the panel's decision may trigger appeals to Superior Court.

His client, Joseph Ligon -- who is 78 and has spent 63 of those years in prison -- is scheduled to have Philadelphia's first contested juvenile-lifer resentencing in May. Bridge said he did not yet know if Ligon would postpone his hearing to appeal the panel's decisions.

"The decision from the en banc panel does not seem to manifest a recognition of the fact that these are not regular cases. These are extraordinary cases that require extraordinary protections," he said.

For example, he said, since the Supreme Court has likened juvenile life without parole to the death penalty for adults, sentencing should follow the same structure -- argued before a jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt. (That would mean proving the defendant is incorrigible before a new life sentence could be imposed.)

"Instead of a death penalty, it's death by incarceration, and the procedural protection should be the same," he said.