HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Three men who have been serving life sentences since they were juveniles won a fresh chance to convince judges they deserve to be resentenced under a decision Thursday by the federal appeals court based in Philadelphia.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said there was at least some reason to think last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Miller v. Alabama, throwing out mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, should be applied retroactively.
The court stressed its decision is tentative and made under a standard that means there is enough possible merit to warrant a full exploration of the matter. The defendants must still convince the district judges they should be resentenced.
Defendants Michael J. Pendleton and Franklin X. Baines are in Pennsylvania prisons, while defendant Corey Grant is serving life in New Jersey.
Baines' lawyer, David R. Fine, said the decision means the appeals court "agreed there's at least an argument that Miller is retroactive."
Baines is "going to have to convince that judge that Miller applies retroactively," Fine said. "And if he convinces the judge of that, obviously, there can be appeals."
The opinion noted a split in similar decisions being made by other federal circuit courts across the country, and Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia district attorney's office, called it an issue "that will be finally resolved by the United States Supreme Court."
Her counterpart in Pittsburgh said the Allegheny County district attorney's office might appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We're going to talk to Philadelphia," said Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala. "They had a co-filing, and we'll see what the best thing to do is at this point."
Grant's lawyer, David B. Glazer, said the next step will probably be a scheduling order by the district judge, possibly including a requirement for legal briefs. He said Grant was convicted of a drug-related murder that occurred a few days after his 16th birthday.
"It's one of the hurdles along the way," Glazer said. "We're just excited about the possibility of getting him back to court."
Pendleton's lawyer, federal public defender Lisa Freeland, said she was very happy with the decision. Her client was convicted of second-degree murder for the 1997 shooting death of a Pittsburgh jitney driver during a robbery, according to a magistrate judge's report in his federal court file.
"We still have a ways to go, but this is a necessary first step to getting relief for Mr. Pendleton," Freeland said.
Mark Bookman, executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, who filed an amicus brief in the case, said the decision was a positive sign.
"But there's an order to the world, and in order to put the world in order, the district court has to go first," Bookman said. "When the 3rd Circuit says they found a prima facie case, that's not nothing."
Last year, after the ruling in Miller v. Alabama, the Pennsylvania Legislature established new minimum sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, depending on their age and whether their convictions are first- or second-degree. They do not apply retroactively.
Also, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral argument 13 months ago to address the fate of hundreds of juvenile offenders who were in prison for life before the Miller decision. Some are now more than 70 years old.