Killer Youths, Fighting For a 2nd Chance

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP
    In this Jan. 25, 2001 photo, Luzerne County Sheriff deputies escort Kenneth Crawford into the courthouse for his murder trial in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. In July 1999, Diana Lynn Algar and Jose Julian Molina were brutally murdered. It began with Algar picking up two drifters - David Lee Hanley, who was 18 at the time, and Crawford, who was 15 - and offering them shelter, food and help getting bus tickets. (AP Photo/The Citizens' Voice, Jack Kelley)

    Nearly 14 years have passed since Diana Lynn Algar and Jose Julian Molina were brutally murdered.

    It began with Algar picking up two drifters - David Lee Hanley, who was 18 at the time, and Kenneth Carl Crawford III, who was 15 - and offering them shelter, food and help getting bus tickets.

    It ended with Hanley and Crawford beating, shooting and robbing Algar, 39, of Hollenback Township, and her friend, Molina, 33, of Tamaqua, in July 1999 at Paradise Campground Resort in Hollenback Township.

    “She was married, she had her life going on, and all of a sudden this happened, all because she was just trying to help somebody,” Algar's husband, Robert Algar Jr., said. “She would have three grandchildren right now. She was there for her daughter's wedding, and then her granddaughter was born a year and a half after - she was already dead. So that's what I think is the hardest part.”

    Hanley pleaded guilty in August 2000 to two counts of first-degree murder. A jury convicted Crawford of the same charges in January 2001. Both teens were ordered to spend life in prison, the mandatory sentence for the crime.

    But now Crawford wants out. Last week, he appealed his life sentence on grounds that it is illegal, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last summer that mandatory life sentences are unconstitutional for juvenile killers.

    Crawford is one of at least two Luzerne County killers and roughly 500 from across the state trying for a new sentencing hearing under the ruling, according to the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. All anxiously await a decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that will determine whether the high courts ruling can be applied retroactively.

    “It's our position that it should be applied retroactively,” Crawford's lawyer, Mark Bufalino, said. “In the event that the court makes a determination as to retroactivity, obviously Mr. Crawford would benefit from that.”

    REWRITING THE RULES

    The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2012 in the case Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole were unconstitutional for offenders who were juveniles at the time of the crime. Juvenile killers can be sentenced to life in prison, but the punishment cannot be mandatory, the court ruled.

    In response to the ruling, the state legislature changed the law to require juveniles convicted of first-degree murder in adult court Pennsylvania to get 35 years to life for those ages 15-17 and 25 years to life for those 14 and under.

    Youths convicted of second-degree murder are now sentenced to 30 years to life for ages 15-17 and 20 years to life for ages 14 and under.

    But it's not as clear-cut for previous offenders. Legal experts have been arguing over whether the high court intended for its ruling to be retroactive, applying to all child killers in prison, or only applying to new convicts.

    A judge in Erie County last month ruled that Supreme Court's ruling was not retroactive - a decision New Castle-based defense attorney Matt Mangino called “premature” in Pennsylvania.
     
    “Some states have said that it's retroactive to all offenders who committed crimes as juveniles, and some states are saying that it's not,” Mangino said. “And we're still waiting for Pennsylvania to make the decision.”

    The state Supreme Court is currently deliberating a case - Commonwealth v. Cunningham - that raises the question of whether the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling can be applied retroactively.

    In that case, Ian Cunningham was convicted following a jury trial in Philadelphia of second-degree murder, robbery and other offenses on June 12, 2002, and was sentenced to life without parole plus 7{ to 15 years in prison. The case specifically raises the question of whether Miller v. Alabama can be applied retroactively.

    Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said the state Supreme Court has no deadline to render its decision. But the decision could come at any time.

    CASE-BY-CASE APPROACH

    Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said only two defendants in the county have filed appeals as a result of the Supreme Court's ruling - Crawford and Todd Rae Tarselli, who pleaded guilty in November 1992 to murdering Mark Bunchalk, 17, of Conyngham.

    Prosecutors said Tarselli shot Bunchalk, a friend who worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Hazleton, in the head nine times during a robbery for $1,068.

    Tarselli, who was sentenced to life in prison, has petitioned a federal judge to review his sentencing.

    Salavantis said prosecutors are awaiting word from the state Supreme Court on the matter.

    “At this point we're taking it case-by-case and seeing if there's something that can be done in a case dealing with a juvenile that may still be in the appeals process,” Salavantis said. “If it is not, then we just have to wait for the Cunningham decision to come down.”

    At least one defendant being held in Luzerne County, Scott Allen Noll, is also seeking to have a new sentencing. Noll, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Dallas, pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree murder in connection with an arson and burglary that killed three people in Franklin County in 1987.

    Noll, who was 14 at the time of the murders, argues his sentence of life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

    Franklin County District Attorney Matthew D. Fogal declined to comment specifically on the case because Noll was a juvenile at the time of the murders.

    “Based upon a review of the record and evidence, I think we'll prevail ultimately,” Fogal said.

    REVISITING SENTENCES, REOPENING WOUNDS

    For juvenile advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision is a matter of justice. Emily Keller, a staff attorney Juvenile Law Center, said her organization argues the decision should be retroactive because the high court applied its decision to another case involving a defendant on post-conviction review.

    “There's a lot of Supreme Court and federal law that says when one person gets the benefit of a retroactive ruling, everyone does,” she said. “To simplify it, it's a fundamental fairness thing.”
    Defendants who win their appeals won't likely be set free. They would get another sentencing hearing in which a judge would resentence them under the guidelines adopted by the legislature last year - meaning they could still end up with life in prison.

    But Keller said her organization believes juvenile killers should have the possibility of life after prison because kids are more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure and don't think through the consequences of their actions the same as adults do.

    “The developmental research is very clear that kids who commit crimes, even violent crimes, have a tremendous capacity to change and rehabilitate,” Keller said. “Even kids who commit very violent offenses, if you look at them 10 or 20 or 30 years later, they're very different people.”

    Algar said he understands his wife's killers were kids at the time who came from broken homes. But they still have a debt to pay.

    “I'm confident that they're going to keep them in there,” Algar said. “This was an open-and-shut case. The only thing that they can do is request a new sentencing hearing and they can just sentence them to the same thing again, which is probably what they'll do.”
     

     


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