Pennsylvania high court takes up challenge to the state’s life-without-parole sentences

Associated Press, 02/16/24: “Pennsylvania’s high court will consider whether some automatic life sentences for those convicted of murder violate constitutional protections for defendants, the justices said Friday.

The appeal being pursued by Derek Lee, convicted of a 2014 killing, argues the state’s life-without-parole law violates prohibitions in the Pennsylvania and U.S. constitutions against cruel punishment.

In the order accepting the appeal, the Supreme Court said it would focus on the constitutionality of the mandatory life sentence in Lee’s case, where he argues he “did not kill or intend to kill and therefore had categorically-diminished culpability.”

Pennsylvania law makes someone liable for murder if they participate in a felony that leads to death, and life with no possibility of parole is currently the state’s only possible sentence for those convicted of second-degree murder.

Advocates say there are about 5,200 people in Pennsylvania currently serving what they call “death by incarceration” sentences, the highest per capita rate among states. The policy affects Black men disproportionately, as about 70% of those serving life-without-parole in Pennsylvania are Black.

Quinn Cozzens, a lawyer for Lee with the Abolitionist Law Center, said he believes if the high court sides with Lee, that could apply to all others convicted of second-degree murder.”

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