Philadelphia has sentenced more teens to life in prison with no chance of parole than any other jurisdiction in the world — and that meant it had the largest number to resentence after the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago ruled that its 2012 ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors must be applied retroactively.
As of this week, 127 out of approximately 315 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia have been resentenced. For those whose cases are still in process, the election of District Attorney Larry Krasner appears to have immediately and dramatically changed the outlook.
It means new deals are already on the table for 17 who had rejected offers made under the previous District Attorney's Office, which mostly stuck close to current state sentencing guidelines that set minimums at 35 years to life for first-degree murder and 30 to life for second-degree murder.
The latest offers make all but two of the lifers eligible for parole right away; it would also keep them all on parole for life. Some set minimums as low as 21 years for first-degree murder.
As for the remaining resentencings, Krasner said he intends to consider each case individually. Rather than relying on the sentencing guidelines, he said he would look to the historical, national and international context that has made Pennsylvania second in the nation in imposing life-without-parole sentences.
"We are being consistent as we do our duty, which is to consider all these unique factors in resentencing," he said. "It's worth bearing in mind that Pennsylvania is an extreme outlier in excessive sentencing, and the United States is an extreme outlier in excessive sentencing."
What's unclear, however, is whether a Philadelphia judge will sign off on those agreements.
At a recent status hearing, Common Pleas Judge Kathryn Streeter-Lewis, who is in charge of approving agreements in juvenile-lifer cases, asked the district attorney to submit briefs defending the deals' legality in light of precedent-setting rulings by Pennsylvania's appellate courts in the case of Qu'eed Batts, an Easton man who was 14 when he participated in a gang-related execution. In his case, the court acknowledged each judge has discretion to craft individualized minimum sentences, but said "sentencing courts should be guided" by current state law.
"I understand that there is a different administration," she said, but added, "Some of these [offers] are very much below the guidelines the decision required. … I'm going to need some reasons."
One such case involved Avery Talmadge, who's been locked up 22 years and was offered a time-served deal that — in a departure from past practice for the District Attorney's Office — contemplates whether the original conviction was even appropriate.
"The case was a street fight that turned into a shooting," Assistant District Attorney Chesley Lightsey told Streeter-Lewis. "The [DAO's internal resentencing] committee believes this is closer to a third-degree, though it was a first-degree conviction."
She said he also had an excellent prison record, reflecting the Supreme Court's underlying rationale that kids, while impulsive and immature, also have a great capacity for rehabilitation.
Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association, which represents many of the lifers, believes the new offers will withstand judicial scrutiny — and that of the public.
Krasner, he said, "sees the dangers of overincarceration and has come up with a meaningful solution. He has reevaluated offers and, consistent with the protection of the public, has recognized that new offers can take into account to a more significant degree the juvenile's growth while in prison."
Among those who rejected offers last year, only to receive new and more favorable ones in the past two months, were: Julius Jenkins, the 17-year-old triggerman in a botched 1993 robbery that left store clerk Francisco Azcona dead; Atil Finney, one of Jenkins' codefendants; Asim Mack, who was 17 in 1995 when he participated in a grocery-store robbery in which a codefendant shot and killed 25-year-old shop clerk Reuben Sweeney; and Phillip Pratt, who was 17 when he shot and killed 17-year-old Dwayne Allen in the street, "because he didn't respond when Pratt gestured at him to come here," according to a 1996 news report.
The new stance from the DA's Office meant that two cases scheduled for contested hearings Tuesday in front of Common Pleas judges were instead quietly resolved with agreements.
One involved Michael Gibbs who was 16 on April 25, 1993, when he and 17-year-old Harry Williams went into the Moon Deli in West Philadelphia, intending to rob it. Williams, fearful that the deli owner, Su Y. Jin, was reaching for a gun, panicked and shot him. Although Gibbs was not the gunman, he was sentenced to life under Pennsylvania's felony-murder law.
Last fall, Gibbs rejected the DA's offer of 30 years to life. But this week he was in court to take a deal that would make him eligible for parole right away.
"We thank God for this DA, because this is a long time coming," said Marie Jordan, one of Gibbs' cousins, fighting back tears.
Also present were Jacinta Stanfield, Gibbs wife, and his 24-year-old daughter, Kareema Bruce, who waited in the hallway outside with Gibbs' grandchildren. For Stanfield, the reality that her husband was coming home was just sinking in. She was 15 and pregnant when Gibbs was locked up. "I thought he was going to die in there," she said.
The only note of protest in the courtroom came from Jung Jin, the victim's sister, describing the devastation the crime had caused her extended family. "This resentencing doesn't seem fair," she wrote in the letter, read aloud by Lightsey. "There is no new opportunity for my brother, or for us."
Still, Judge Jeffrey Minehart signed off on the 24-to-life deal, which is six years shorter than the minimum sentence a 17-year-old convicted of second-degree murder would face today.
And, that same morning, Judge Barbara McDermott approved a 26-to-life sentence for another juvenile lifer, Theodore Burns, who had been an accomplice in the 1991 robbery of a Dunkin' Donuts, in which a man named Stephen Rivel was shot and killed. Like Gibbs, Burns was not the gunman and by all accounts did not intend to participate in a murder.
McDermott told Burns she factored his prior record and role in the crime in approving the sentence. She did not express the same reservations as Streeter-Lewis. "I think the law is pretty clear, the Commonwealth thinks the law is pretty clear, and your attorneys think the law is pretty clear: I do not have to give you a mandatory minimum."
The resentencing process began two years ago with prisoners who'd been in the longest, meaning virtually all lifers resentenced so far have already served at least 20 years. But many in the pipeline have been in just 10 or 15 years so far.
A handful of older cases also remain; some of those involve multiple victims or reflect particularly heinous crimes. Included in that group is Kevin Hughes, a reported paranoid schizophrenic who in 1989 raped and killed a 9-year-old girl; according to court records, it appears Hughes now suffers from dementia, making his competency for resentencing an open question.
Krasner said offers he's approved so far have included minimums ranging between 40 years and just under 20 years.
He declined to specify a floor for minimum sentences.
"I see no arbitrary number. We are approaching this the way the Anglo-American court system has approached these for centuries: on a case-by-case basis."