Lawsuit challenges Pennsylvania's mandatory life prison terms for some murder convictions

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Inmates who are about to be released attend a job fair at Frackville State Prison in Schuylkill County Thursday April 25, 2019. - Laurie Mason Schroeder/The Morning Call/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — A lawsuit filed Wednesday against the Pennsylvania Parole Board contends that the state’s ban on parole eligibility for inmates serving life sentences for second-degree or felony-murder convictions is cruel punishment and should be struck down.

The complaint, filed in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg by the Abolitionist Law Center, the Amistad Law Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights, contends that under the felony-murder rule, inmates are denied “the chance to seek redemption” and are forced “to live under the nightmarish specter of dying in prison” regardless of whether they’ve redeemed themselves in prison, whether their harsh sentence is warranted, and whether their sentences could be served under conditions of parole.

The suit challenges the constitutionality of the state’s prohibition on parole for inmates serving life sentences for second-degree or felony-murder convictions, contending that such a prohibition violates the ban on cruel punishments. It also seeks an evidentiary hearing.

It was filed on behalf of six inmates, including one woman and three men serving life sentences in Philadelphia murders.

In Pennsylvania, a second-degree murder is a homicide committed during the commission of another felony, such as a robbery, and carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. First-degree murder, or an intentional killing, carries a mandatory life term or the death penalty.

Bret Grote, legal director of the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center, said in a phone interview that felony murders committed in Pennsylvania before 1974 were wrapped into the first-degree murder statute along with intentional killings. Marie “Mechie” Scott, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, was thus convicted by a jury in 1974 of first-degree murder in a fatal 1973 shooting in which her co-defendant, Leroy Saxton, pulled the trigger, Grote said. He said Scott, then 19, was a lookout during the robbery and did not know that Saxton was going to shoot the victim.

According to a Philadelphia Daily News article, the victim, Michael Kerrigan, was an off-duty fireman who was working in a North Philadelphia gas station office at the time. Prosecutors had argued that Saxton and Scott threatened Kerrigan with a knife, and that Scott spotted a gun in the victim’s back pocket, then gave it to Saxton.

During a virtual news conference Wednesday, reporters heard a recording by Scott, 67, who is serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution Muncy.

“How could such a draconian penalty be handed down to those of us … who have neither killed anyone nor intended to kill?” she said she has wondered. “Clearly, in my mind there had to be some room for a chance of redemption.”

As of June 30, Pennsylvania had 5,386 inmates serving life sentences, with 1,148 of them convicted of second-degree murder, according to the state Department of Corrections. An additional 128 inmates are on death row.

Grote, during the news conference, called the felony-murder statute a “prosecutors’ net” that “allows prosecutors to engage in overcharging and in linking people to unintended consequences of their actions, in particular young people.” Louisiana is the only other state besides Pennsylvania that imposes life imprisonment as a mandatory minimum punishment for felony murder, he said.

Lorraine “Dee Dee” Haw, a member of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, whose son is serving a life sentence in prison after being convicted of a felony murder, and whose brother was killed by gun violence, said mostly Black, brown, and poor people are disproportionately affected by life sentences. As a victim, she said she supports the lawsuit “a thousand, a million percent.”

Nearly 70% of people serving life sentences for second-degree murder are Black, statistics show.

The other named plaintiffs in the case are Reid Evans, 59, his brother Wyatt Evans, 57, and Tyreem Rivers, 42, all of Philadelphia, and Marsha Scaggs, 56, who was convicted in Lawrence County, and Normita Jackson, 43, convicted in Allegheny County.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Parole Board said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

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