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Parole possible for murderer of North York youth counselor
One of four people who murdered a youth counselor inside the Children's Home of York nearly 29 years ago has been given a chance at parole.
Michael A. Lehman, now 43, was 14 years old when he wielded a knife and stood guard as accomplices Cornell Mitchell, Dwayne Morningwake and Miguel Yoder crept into counselor Kwame Beatty's bedroom in the North York group home and repeatedly stabbed him in the chest, stomach, shoulder, back and thigh on June 20, 1988.
After the murder, the foursome stole Beatty's wallet, cash and car and drove to Harrisburg, later returning to York by bus.
Lehman, a resident of the home, was angry at Beatty because the counselor had imposed discipline on the teen. He has served nearly 29 years in prison so far.
Lehman and Morningwake, who was 16 at the time of the slaying, were tried as adults, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Mitchell was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, but he died in prison of AIDS-related complications in 1991. He was 25 when Beatty was murdered and testified he met the three group-home residents after they ran away and he recruited them to sell crack cocaine for him.
Yoder, who was 17 at the time, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, robbery and other charges and was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.
Supreme Court ruling: The punishments of Lehman and Morningwake were called into question in 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole. A life sentence can still be handed down to a juvenile, SCOTUS ruled, but it cannot be an automatic sentence.
In Pennsylvania, people convicted of first- and second-degree murder receive automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole.
So juveniles automatically sentenced to life in prison, including Lehman and Morningwake, are entitled to resentencing hearings. Lehman's hearing was in February, and he was back in York County Court on Tuesday for sentencing. Morningwake's hearing is set for April 27, according to court records.
There are 11 such "juvenile lifers" in York County, and about 460 across the state.
New sentence: During Lehman's resentencing hearing Tuesday, defense attorney Gerald Lord argued Lehman should be released now.
But chief deputy prosecutor David Maisch urged presiding Common Pleas Judge Michael E. Bortner to impose a sentence of 45 years to life.
Bortner resentenced Lehman to 30 years to life in state prison and said that way the state parole board will be tasked with determining when Lehman should be released. The judge noted the parole board has expertise in making such decisions.
"Parole is not a gift," the judge told Lehman. "It's something you're going to have to earn."
Lehman will become eligible for parole in June 2018, his attorney said.
No second chance for Beatty: Bortner said Beatty should not have suffered the fate he did and noted that unlike Lehman's murder sentence, there's no do-over for Beatty.
"He doesn't get a second chance," the judge said.
The judge noted that higher courts have determined children often lack maturity, can be reckless and impulsive and are susceptible to negative influences, and that those factors must be considered when sentencing juvenile criminals.
Still, Bortner said, Lehman's level of sophistication at the time of the murder was likely more advanced than that of his peers.
"He was only 14 years old, but he certainly knew his way around the track," the judge said.
Bortner also noted that Lehman "had a pretty tough childhood" that included being raped, abused and abandoned. Before the murder, Lehman had no criminal record, the judge said.
'Horrendous crime': After the hearing, Lord called Beatty's slaying "a horrendous crime" but noted that Lehman "has made great strides" in rehabilitating himself "and is truly remorseful."
Maisch said he does not yet know whether his office will appeal the ruling but confirmed the option exists for both sides.
The prosecutor said these "juvenile lifer" murder cases are difficult for the victims' loved ones.
Their wounds had time to heal, he said, but are reopened by appeals courts.
"This is not easy for a family to have to absorb," he said.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.