Life Without Parole For ‘Felony Murder’: Pa. Case Targets Sentencing Law

A first-of-its-kind court case in Pennsylvania is asking a big question: How long do people need to stay in prison before they get a second chance?

More than 1,000 people are serving life without parole in Pennsylvania, even though they never intended to kill anyone. Seventy percent of those people are Black.

I met Tyreem Rivers on the phone in November, when his voice was a little muffled.

‘Well, I have two or three masks on,’ Rivers said with a laugh. ‘I have at least two masks on, so I’m trying to stay safe.’

Staying safe is hard when you’re confined with hundreds of other men during a pandemic. Rivers, 43, has spent more than half his life in prison. He grew up in a rough part of Philadelphia. When he arrived behind bars in 1997, he says he was hooked on drugs and could barely read.

‘So I never really understood the concept of “life without parole,”‘ he said. ‘You know, I didn’t shoot nobody, I didn’t stab anybody, I didn’t rape anybody.’

Here’s what he did do: snatch the purse of an 85-year-old woman. She died in the hospital, two weeks later, from injuries sustained when she fell. The evidence presented at trial suggests he didn’t mean to kill her. But that didn’t matter under a concept called ‘felony murder.’

The effort to change the law

‘The felony murder concept is, if a death occurs during the commission of another felony, that is considered a form of murder that’s attributed to anybody who participated in the felony, regardless of whether they had any criminal intent in regard to the death of the other person,’ said Bret Grote, legal director at the Abolitionist Law Center.

Grote, alongside the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Amistad Law Projectis suing the state on behalf of Rivers and five other people convicted in their late teens. They’ve already served a combined 200 years in prison. Their case argues the punishment for felony murder in the state is cruel and unconstitutional under Pennsylvania law.

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