Juveniles should only rarely be sentenced to life without parole, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said Monday, telling prosecutors that such cases require proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is an unusual example of someone who can never be rehabilitated.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that there is a legal presumption that life sentences without parole for juveniles are not appropriate, and put the burden on district attorneys to prove individual exceptions are warranted.
"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," wrote Justice Christine Donohue in the lead opinion .
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The decision sent the case of convicted murderer Qu'eed Batts back to county court for what will be his third sentencing.
Donohue wrote that there is ample evidence in the record to suggest Batts may be able to change.
"As we read the sentencing court's opinion," Donohue wrote, "it becomes clear that its conclusion that Batts' actions were not the result of his 'unfortunate yet transient immaturity' was based exclusively on the fact that the murder was 'deliberate and premeditated.'"
The high burden of proof that prosecutors must meet is justified because so much is at stake, Donohue wrote.
"The risk of an erroneous decision against the offender would result in the irrevocable loss of ... liberty for the rest of his or her life," she said.
Marsha Levick, Batts' attorney, said she was "really pleased" with what she described as a well-reasoned decision.
Northampton County prosecutor Terence Houck, who prosecuted Batts, told The Morning Call of Allentown the court's new rules make him doubt that any juveniles in the state will be sentenced to life without parole.
"In practical terms, it ends life without parole (for youths), that is my opinion," Houck said.
The state district attorneys' association offered no immediate reaction.
Batts, now 26, is serving life in Coal Township State Prison for a gang-related murder he committed in February 2006, when he was 14 years old.
The court opinion said Batts killed one man, shooting him point-blank in the head, and wounded another in Easton at the urging of another member of the Bloods gang.
He did not know either victim.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled against mandatory life-without-parole for juvenile offenders. The Pennsylvania Legislature responded by imposing new sentencing rules for juveniles in first- and second-degree cases, but did not make them retroactive. The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled its 2012 decision does apply retroactively.
The court opinion said at least 17 states have outlawed life-without-parole for juvenile defendants.
Donohue's opinion said sentencing courts should be guided by the state law when resentencing the juvenile lifers — at least 25 years for those who killed when 14 and younger, and at least 35 years for defendants who were between ages 15 and 18.
Among states, Pennsylvania has the most lifers who committed their crimes as juveniles.
A Corrections Department spokeswoman said Monday there had been 516 so-called juvenile lifers in the prison system, of what had been about 2,500 nationally. In Pennsylvania, two have died, 40 have been released, 93 have been resentenced and 56 have been paroled.
Some of those who have been resentenced received life again. Others may have more years to serve, and not all who have been paroled may have actually been released yet, said Corrections spokeswoman Amy Worden.