A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling could force courts to reconsider the life-in-prison sentences for killers convicted as juveniles, including the inmates serving time for two high-profile York County murders.
The court ruled Monday that it is unconstitutional for state laws to require juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. The 5-4 decision is in line with others the court has made, including ruling out the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for young people whose crimes did not involve killing.
Philadelphia-based attorney Norris Gelman applauded the ruling, which found that mandatory life-in-prison sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
"When something is declared unconstitutional, it means that whatever it is, is an enemy of justice," Gelman said. "It's an enemy of what we believe in as a country. And the court found this practice to be something that was basically and fundamentally at odds with the vision of the Constitution."
For 17-year-old Jordan Wallick, the Supreme Court's ruling could have an immediate impact, said defense attorney Dawn Cutaia. Wallick was sentenced in May to life in prison for gunning down aspiring attorney James Wallmuth III during a botched street robbery in York City nearly two years ago. Wallick was 15 when he fatally shot Wallmuth in the back.
Cutaia said she will argue that Wallick's sentence should be commuted to life with the possibility of parole.
"The idea that a juvenile at the age of 15 years old could have to spend the rest of his life in prison without even the possibility of parole means that he has no reason to attempt to better himself," Cutaia said. "His entire life has been completely destroyed because of something that he did when he was a 15-year-old idiot.
Monday's decision, however, leaves open the possibility for judges to sentence juveniles to life without parole in individual cases of murder.
York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said he has several concerns about the ruling.
In states like Pennsylvania, which impose mandatory life sentences on convicted killers, lawmakers must now establish a system "to determine whether or not such a penalty is appropriate" for juvenile offenders, Kearney said. That's a legislative decision that will likely lead to more litigation, he said.
Also, Kearney said, the court's ruling does not provide any guidance on what to do about current inmates.
"Do we bring them all back? Do we resentence them? Are they now life with parole?" Kearney said. "There are many questions that are left unanswered by the court."
According to data provided to the court, roughly 2,500 people are behind bars for life with no chance of winning their freedom for murders they committed before their 18th birthday. Seventy-nine of them are in prison for crimes that took place when they were 14 or younger. More than 2,000 of them were there because the sentence was mandated by a legislature.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented from the majority opinion penned by Justice Elena Kagan.
"Even a 17 ½ year-old who sets off a bomb in crowded mall or guns down a dozen students and teachers is a 'child' and must be given a chance to persuade a judge to permit his release into society," said Alito, who read his dissent aloud in the courtroom. "Nothing in the Constitution supports this arrogation of legislative authority."
It's too early to know exactly how this might affect Witman and other people convicted of murder as children, Gelman said. But, Gelman said, he approves of the ruling because it takes the issue "out of the political arena."
"This whole idea of trying 13 and 14 year olds for first-degree murder and then giving them life without parole was very misguided," he said.
From a prosecutor's perspective, Kearney said, the ruling could actually lead to more convictions from juries less conflicted about sending a child to prison for life.
"We'll have a little easier time as to getting those convictions if people realize, 'OK, maybe if he does change, they'll let him out,'" Kearney said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
- Erin James may also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.