PA Supreme Court Petition Challenges Mandatory Life Without Parole for 18-Year-Old Juveniles

Charmaine Pfender petitions PA Supreme Court, claiming that the mandatory life without parole sentence imposed on her in 1985 is unconstitutional.

Charmaine Pfender and her mother, Donna Hill

Charmaine and her mother, Donna

June 6, 2017: A petition filed in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on June 2nd is requesting that the Commonwealth’s highest court apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent holdings striking down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles to the case of a woman who was 18 years and 6 months old at the time of the homicide leading to her conviction.

Read Petition to PA Supreme Court HERE.

In 2012, Miller v. Alabama struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide offenses. The Court’s holding was based on a recognition that “youth is more than a chronological fact”. Youth is marked by developmental characteristics of “immaturity, irresponsibility, impetuousness, and recklessness,” and is a “condition of life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and to psychological damage.”

Thus, the Court held that Mandatory life without parole “poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment” because it “mak[es] youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to the imposition of that harshest prison prison sentence[.]” Life without parole sentences pose a heightened risk of excessive punishment when imposed on youthful offenders because “[i]mprisoning an offender until he dies alters the remainder of his life ‘by a forfeiture that is irrevocable.’”. A life without parole sentence “imposed on a teenager, as compared with an older person, is therefore “the same . . . in name only’”

Charmaine Pfender, now a 51-year-old woman who has spent nearly 33 years in prison, was convicted in 1985 for the homicide of a man whom she has always maintained was trying to rape her. Ms. Pfender testified at trial that she reached for a gun under the front seat of the car she was parked in when Turkish student Engin Aydin attempted to force himself on her while holding a knife. After firing a warning shot and attempting to run away, she shot Aydin twice as he continued pursuing her outside of the parked vehicle.

Although her co-defendant also testified that Charmaine was in the back seat of the car with Aydin until she fled and the shooting occurred, Aydin’s friend testified that the two women attempted to tie them up for no reason and that Charmaine shot Aydin when he resisted. Charmaine has always disputed the prosecution’s version of events as a lie designed to cover up the assault against her.


Diminished culpability

In addition to her youth, Charmaine experienced extreme childhood physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, factors the U.S. Supreme Court held are relevant for determining whether a lesser sentence than life without parole should be imposed. Between ages 6-14 Charmaine was subjected to repeated abuse at the hands of her father, including vicious beatings and sexual violence.  Despite the severe trauma she endured, Charmaine has an exemplary record, devoting herself to personal growth and service during her time in prison.

As an 18-year-old who had previously been adjudicated a dependent of the Commonwealth and placed in a ward home at age 13, Ms. Pfender was still considered a child at the time of her offense under Pennsylvania law that recognizes adjudicated dependents as juveniles until they reach age 21.

The U.S. Supreme Court has cited to science on brain development in its recent cases on life without parole sentences imposed on juveniles that recognize how the areas of the brain involved in impulse control and risk evaluation continue developing through late adolescence and into early adulthood at age 22. And the cover of every issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence, the flagship journal of the Society for Research on Adolescence, proclaims that adolescence is defined as ‘the second decade of life.’

Charmaine’s case sheds light on a large and looming problem in Pennsylvania’s prisons.  More than 5,400, or 10.3%, of those in the PADOC are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), also referred to as Death By Incarceration (DBI). The increase in the LWOP/DBI population over the past 30 years has been a major contributor to the mass incarceration in Pennsylvania and across the country, as well as the rising costs of incarceration associated with an aging and elderly prison population. According to the Sentencing Project, Pennsylvania has the largest proportion of its prison population serving LWOP/DBI. Human Rights Watch identified Pennsylvania as having the second highest proportion of its prison population classified as elderly. And Pennsylvania has been the national and world leader in sentencing juveniles to life without parole, a practice now prohibited by the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in ongoing re-sentencing proceedings for approximately 500 people.

Research and recidivism rates have consistently shown that aging and elderly prisoners pose a drastically diminished risk to public safety. Charmaine’s case is illustrative of that fact.

Since her incarceration over 32 years ago, Charmaine life in prison been marked by a complete absence of any violence, an exemplary disciplinary record, and an impressive list of achievements and record of service. She has participated in and completed several programs aimed at violence prevention, assisting survivors of sexual abuse, and utilizing restorative justice practices. Ms. Pfender has worked at numerous jobs during her incarceration, including many pertaining to her skills in carpentry and building and construction trades, skills that she obtained while in prison. Currently, she works with the Canine Partners for Life program as a dog handler for a Lion’s Club program that trains service dogs; she works as a Braille transcriber for the Lion’s Club; Create for Kids community work program; and she is the chairperson of special events committee in the progressive housing unit she lives on, which is an honors unit for inmates with exceptional disciplinary records. Ms. Pfender’s maturation into a community-oriented adult with an impressive record of service, educational and vocational achievement is also reflected in the fact that she has never engaged in an act of violence while in prison and maintained an exemplary disciplinary record over the course of 32 years.

The 18-year-old who made a fateful decision to accompany her friend for what she presumed would be a typical date has transformed her life. Charmaine is a living testament to the rectitude of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition that mandatory life without parole is an inappropriate and disproportionate punishment for teenagers, in part, due to their possessing less fixed characters and therefore being more amenable to rehabilitation. As anticipated by Miller and Montgomery, the continued incarceration of Charmaine Pfender serves no penological purpose and should come to an end.


Contact: Bret Grote