Slow Death Row


By: Martha Conley

    The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has more youthful offenders (juveniles under 18 years old) serving life sentences without parole (LWOP) than any other state in the union and any other country in the world. Our legislature decided that sentencing juveniles to LWOP was a good idea based on the theory in the 1980’s that a generation of “super predators” was emerging.  Most of these super predators were black, of course.  The sociologists have since repudiated the theory, admitting that they were wrong, but approximately 524 people who were sentenced as juveniles are still rotting on life row. The Commonwealth claims there are 500 juvenile lifers, 300 sentenced in Philadelphia County.  Joseph Heckle, a member of the organization, Fight for Lifers, and longtime advocate for juvenile lifers has identified 524.   Pennsylvania is one of the few states with no minimum age for LWOP.

    Some of these kids, some as young as 14 when sent to adult prisons among sexual predators, were sentenced under the felony murder rule which required a mandatory LWOP sentence when a person is involved in the commission of a felony where someone dies, whether they actually killed the victim or not. “Involved” in this context can mean you were sitting in a car when your adult friend or cousin or uncle went into a store and killed someone unbeknownst to you.  Involved can also mean an accident.  Trina Garnett was 14 when she accidently caused a fire, which killed two children, and she received a mandatory LWOP sentence for arson murder.  She is now 54 years old and, of course, still on slow death row going on 40 years.  For women in Pennsylvania a LWOP sentence can result from defending yourself from an abusive husband or sexual predator.

    Now the good news…The United States Supreme Court in 2012 found in the case of Miller v. Alabama mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles cruel and unusual and thus, unconstitutional.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, not known for its compassion, especially when it comes to black people as revealed by recent racist emails, decided that the decision was not retroactive.  Also, since then, some juveniles in Pennsylvania have been sentenced to 60 years in prison.  Let’s see, 60 plus 14 is 74.

    Lucky for PA juveniles, the U.S. Supreme Court came to the rescue again in Montgomery v. Louisiana and issued a decision on January 25, 2016 that its earlier decision was indeed retroactive.   The 524 people on life row in Pennsylvania now will have the opportunity to be resentenced and/or considered for parole. The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole has taken the position that it is unable to grant parole to persons sentenced to life, suggesting a two-step process likely involving resentencing and then possibly parole.  Let’s hope they are not resentenced to 60 years.  This is especially the case for juveniles who were sentenced under the felony murder rule and who did not kill anyone.  Some Pennsylvania legislators and judges seem more concerned about being re-elected than being fair.  The desire to seem “tough on crime” seems to have reached a tipping point.  Hopefully, it will not be a death knell to a political campaign to show compassion to people, many of whom have been damaged by our society.  In this process we may find that we have far fewer victims of violent crime.  The money we spend incarcerating people for life would be better spent compensating victims of violent crime and providing decent lives for the homeless.  


If all 524 people sentenced as juveniles ended up spending at least 60 years in prison, before dying, the Commonwealth would spend almost a billion dollars incarcerating them at a cost of $30, 000 per inmate, per year. Including the 524 people sentenced as juveniles, there are roughly 5000 people in total serving life sentences in Pennsylvania. “Life” in Pennsylvania is life without parole.  There are undoubtedly some inmates who should remain incarcerated for the rest of their lives.  However, since Miller v. Alabama, judges are no longer required to sentence juveniles to LWOP for felony murder.  They now have the discretion to consider each case based on the facts uncovered at trial. Judges should consider the age of the accused at the time of the crime, the circumstances surrounding the crime, and his or her potential for rehabilitation.  

Martha Conley is an Attorney in Pittsburgh, an Official Visitor of the PA Prison Society and Co-Chair of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty