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Pa. Supreme Court will consider whether life without parole for second-degree murder is ‘cruel’

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Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 19, 2024

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will consider whether life in prison without parole is an unconstitutionally cruel sentence in the case of an Allegheny County man whose accomplice in a robbery shot and killed a man.

Pennsylvania is an outlier in sentencing people convicted of second-degree murder to life in prison without the possibility of parole, advocates for ending the practice say.

Quinn Cozzens, an attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center leading the team that represents Derek Lee, who was sentenced to life without parole in 2016, said the state is virtually alone in the practice. 

Only Louisiana and Pennsylvania still impose the sentence without regard for a person’s involvement or intent in the crime. Every other state among the 30 that allow life sentences without parole require an additional level of intent or action by the defendant. And Pennsylvania’s life without parole sentence is mandatory, meaning that with an exception for juvenile offenders, every life sentence is a sentence to death by incarceration, Cozzens said.

As a result, Pennsylvania has about 1,200 people sentenced to die in prison for a death they did not cause or intend, Cozzens said. Among them, 70% are Black, a number disproportionate to the population and driven by the discretion of prosecutors to pursue or forgo the charge and the role racial bias plays in convictions for lower-culpability crimes, advocates say.

“Sentencing people to life without parole for felony murder is a good example of the failure of a punitive logic that underlies so much of our criminal legal system where the harshest punishment is sought,” Cozzens said. “And that leads to people going into prison when they’re very young and coming out when they’re very old, if at all.”

Lee’s attorneys are joined by two former state secretaries of corrections who say keeping people who did not intend or cause the death of another in prison for the rest of their lives is financially insensible, prevents finite resources from being used for rehabilitation of those who could benefit, and has little effect on public safety.

“All told, life without parole sentences force prison systems to spend a lot of money incarcerating people who probably don’t need to be confined at all,” former secretaries John Wetzel and George Little said in an amicus brief.

The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case, did not file a response to Lee’s petition for appeal, according to court records. Kelly Callihan, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said in a statement that the organization’s appeals committee is reviewing the court’s decision to determine its next steps and is in contact with the Allegheny County district attorney.

Lee, 36, was convicted of second-degree murder, robbery, and conspiracy in the Oct. 14, 2016, shooting death of Leonard Butler in Pittsburgh. Butler’s long-term partner Tina Chapple testified that on the day of his death, Butler called her downstairs in their home where she saw two men with guns, court records say.

Although both men had partial face coverings, Chapple identified one of the men as Lee. She testified that Lee directed her and Butler to the basement and demanded money. After Butler gave Lee his watch, Lee went upstairs and the other man remained in the basement. 

When Butler lunged at the other man, Chapple testified that she heard a gunshot. Butler was shot and died from his injuries, the petition asking the Supreme Court to hear Lee’s appeal says.

“There was no dispute that Mr. Lee did not cause Mr. Butler’s death, nor was there any testimony indicating that Mr. Lee intended to kill Mr. Butler,” the filing says.

Allegheny County Judge David Cashman sentenced Lee to the mandatory life sentence without parole plus 10-20 years for criminal conspiracy.

A three-judge panel of the Superior Court found that it was bound by precedent to uphold Lee’s sentence. Judge Christine Dubow, in a concurring opinion, urged the Supreme Court to “revisit whether a mandatory minimum sentence of life-without-parole imposed for all second-degree murder convictions is constitutional under Article I, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

Although the state Supreme Court agreed on Friday to consider in Lee’s case whether life without parole is unconstitutional under both the federal and state constitutions, Lee’s attorneys contend the Pennsylvania Constitution provides greater protections.

While the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, the corresponding section of Pennsylvania’s Constitution requires only that a punishment be cruel to be impermissible.

“Lee’s incarceration until death serves no legitimate penological purpose and this Court should rectify Pennsylvania’s increasingly outlier status in continuing to impose this draconian punishment,” the petition for appeal says.

Lee’s attorneys from the Abolitionist Law Center and the Amistad Law Project contend that the Superior Court, which upheld Lee’s conviction and sentence, was required but failed to perform a four-part test set forth by the state Supreme Court to determine whether the state Constitution provides greater protection than its federal counterpart.

First, Lee’s lawyers argue, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the inclusion of “unusual” in the Eighth Amendment to refer to punishments that have long fallen out of use, and therefore the term’s omission from the Pennsylvania Constitution permits challenges to common punishments “if there is a basis for determining they are cruel in a constitutional sense.”

Next, they contend that the history of Pennsylvania’s constitutional prohibition on cruel punishments indicates that it has consistently been interpreted as barring punishments that are unduly harsh and not those imposed with cruel intent. 

Third, Lee’s lawyers said, other states have interpreted their constitutional provisions against cruel punishment as distinct from the Eighth Amendment in not requiring that a punishment be cruel and unusual. 

And finally, they argue that Pennsylvania has unique policy considerations in favor of interpreting the state ban on cruel punishment to provide greater protection than the Eighth Amendment. 

In addition to being an outlier among states by allowing life imprisonment without parole, Pennsylvania’s prison population serving life without parole is aging or elderly. Criminologists have found that involvement with crime correlates strongly to age and older incarcerated people pose little risk to public safety. 

Cozzens said one of Lee’s main goals if he is released from prison is to be able to mentor young people to counsel them away from the kinds of decisions that led to his circumstances.

“That’s something that life without parole is unable to account for … that when people are able to mature they age out of the kind of antisocial behavior that leads to their involvement in criminal behavior,” Cozzens said.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.