Taking advantage of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, attorneys for a Pennsylvania man who was a 14-year-old gang member when he fatally shot another teenager in 2006 urged a judge Thursday to give their client, who received an automatic sentence of life without parole, a chance at freedom someday.
The state Supreme Court ordered a resentencing hearing for Qu'eed Batts, now 22, following a 2012 ruling by the nation's highest court that banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles.
Judges and juries must now take into account a defendant's age and maturity level, the nature of the crime and other evidence before imposing such a sentence. The high court said it expects it to be used sparingly.
Batts apologized to his victim's family and told the judge he is changing his life. A prosecutor called Batts a cold-blooded murderer who didn't even know the teenager he killed, and said he should spend the rest of his life in prison.
Northampton County Judge Michael Koury said he would pronounce the sentence Friday morning.
The issue of very long sentences for juvenile murderers remains in flux in Pennsylvania, where more than 450 inmates are serving life without parole for crimes they committed when they were minors, according to the Juvenile Law Center -- more than any other state. Nationally, there are about 2,600 such inmates.
Batts is among a handful of Pennsylvania inmates whose life-without-parole sentences were under appeal at the time of the Supreme Court ruling and thus are entitled to seek a reduced sentence. But a divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in October that hundreds of other inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles are not entitled to new sentencing hearings because their cases were finalized before the ruling. That decision is under appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Separately, advocates for juvenile offenders are challenging the constitutionality of a state law passed to comply with the ban on automatic life sentences for minors.
Batts was convicted in Northampton County of murder and aggravated assault in 2007 in the shooting death of 16-year-old Clarence Edwards and the wounding of another teenager. He said he was acting on the orders of a Bloods gang leader.
Shaniqua Batts tearfully begged the judge for a reduced sentence that would give her son a chance at parole, saying she's noticed a change in him and that he could be a productive member of society one day. The defense also cited Batts' chaotic, deprived childhood as a mitigating factor.
First Deputy District Attorney Terence Houck introduced evidence that Batts has maintained gang ties while in prison. Batts denied that he remains a member of the Bloods.
Dr. Timothy Michals, a forensic psychiatrist called by the prosecution, testified that a January examination of the defendant indicated that Batts continues to exhibit poor judgment and impulse control and is unlikely to change.
The victim's grandmother, Delores Howell, who was home watching TV when her grandson was shot on the front porch, said his death still haunts the family and asked that Batts get life without parole.
"I get so angry that our loved one is no longer here with us," she said of her grandson, who would have turned 25 on Friday. Howell, who was in court but had a victim's advocate read from a letter she wrote to the judge, said that while Batts' family can spend time with him, Edwards' family can only "talk to him through dirt."
From the gallery, Howell told Batts she doesn't hate him but hates what he did.
"You made your bed, you have to lie in it," Howell said.
A defense expert, psychologist Frank Dattilio, said Batts is remorseful and can be rehabilitated.