Pennsylvania grapples with new sentences for juvenile lifers
PHILADELPHIA — On a long-ago summer night, 16-year-old Giovanni Reid accepted a neighbor’s invitation to an International House of Pancakes restaurant as thanks for watching the man’s infant son.
By sunrise, the outing in south Philadelphia had veered to robbery, then murder.
“I had never seen somebody get shot like that right in front of me,” Reid, now 42, said in a telephone interview from prison. “It was a very scary thing to be a part of.”
Nearly 26 years later, Reid — who has long denied a direct role in the crime, but faults himself for hanging out with an older, fast-running crowd — will soon get the chance to start over. He is one of 517 Pennsylvania offenders sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles whose cases are being revisited because of a pair of Supreme Court rulings.
Pennsylvania leads the nation in those serving mandatory no-release sentences for crimes committed as minors, the result of laws that long treated teens charged with the most serious crimes like adults. After the Supreme Court barred such sentences for juveniles in 2012, Pennsylvania officials argued that did not apply to those already in prison.
Then last year the nation’s highest court said the ban must be applied retroactively, triggering new sentencing hearings and parole for inmates across the country.
In Pennsylvania, judges have resentenced more than 100 inmates, many now in their 50s and 60s. Reid, who was resentenced earlier this year and approved for parole in July, hopes to be released in August.
So far, 58 Pennsylvania inmates have been released, and five have been denied parole. Two inmates were resentenced to life without parole, allowed by the Supreme Court in rare cases when offenders’ crimes reflect “permanent incorrigibility.”
State prison officials and advocates say they are working to prepare inmates for return to a world very different from the one they left behind, pairing them with mentors and psychologists.
“One of the things that makes it a more challenging group is that they came in as children,” said John Wetzel, secretary of corrections.
About 300 of the inmates are in prison for killings in Philadelphia, defense attorneys say.
Judges here have fast-tracked the cases of some of the longest-serving inmates, approving new sentences negotiated by the district attorney’s office and defenders that have made most immediately eligible for parole.
In April, Reid was resentenced to 25 years to life, making him eligible for release. He is awaiting a decision by the parole board. Reid acknowledges being with a group of men and knowing one had a gun when that man shot Robert Janke, 22, a pre-med University of Pennsylvania student. The shooter was convicted of first-degree murder. Reid turned down an offer to plead guilty in exchange for 25 to 50 years in prison, and was convicted of second-degree murder.
Now city courts have begun dealing with the contested cases. A panel of Philadelphia judges ruled this spring that they would allow juvenile offenders to be resentenced to life without parole, but only in rare cases. The state Supreme Court has also set tight boundaries for the case reviews.
In June, the court sided with inmate Qu’eed Batts, who argued that life without parole for juvenile offenders should be all but forbidden. The court said prosecutors can only sentence juveniles to no-parole terms in rare circumstances and must first prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they are “irreparably corrupt” and beyond rehabilitation.
“It is the exceedingly rare and uncommon juvenile whose crime reflects his permanent incorrigibility who therefore may be constitutionally sentenced to life without the possibility of parole,” Justice Christine Donohue wrote on behalf of the court’s majority.
People on both sides said the ruling could effectively eliminate life without parole for juvenile offenders in the state. Others are waiting to see how resentencings play out in court.
“That is an exceedingly high burden,” said one of Batts’ lawyers, Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The association represents about two-thirds of the city’s juvenile lifers.
Batts was 14 when he shot two other teens in Easton, killing one of them, after a gang superior handed him a gun and mask and told him to “put work in.” He is now 26 and has twice been sentenced to life without parole, but must be resentenced.
While the prospect of release has given new hope to inmates and their families, it has brought back painful memories for the families of many victims. Robin Kays of Linesville is one of the few who understands both sides.
Nearly 40 years ago, her brother and her cousin, both 16, shot her stepfather to death while he slept, in a plot one hatched to reunite his divorced parents. Kays, then 21, recalls joining other family members to clean up the blood. But after years of prison visits with Joseph Frisina and Ricky Battles and watching them mature, she is convinced they should be released. Both were recently resentenced, with Battles subsequently denied parole. Frisina isn’t yet eligible.
“If I was reading about these two cases and I wasn’t connected, I know what I would be saying,” Kays said. “But we do know them. We do know what they became.”
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