Pa. Supreme Court will consider whether life without parole for second-degree murder is ‘cruel’

Pennsylvania Capital-Star, 02/19/24: “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will consider whether life in prison without parole is an unconstitutionally cruel sentence in the case of an Allegheny County man whose accomplice in a robbery shot and killed a man.

Pennsylvania is an outlier in sentencing people convicted of second-degree murder to life in prison without the possibility of parole, advocates for ending the practice say.

Quinn Cozzens, an attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center leading the team that represents Derek Lee, who was sentenced to life without parole in 2016, said the state is virtually alone in the practice.

Only Louisiana and Pennsylvania still impose the sentence without regard for a person’s involvement or intent in the crime. Every other state among the 30 that allow life sentences without parole require an additional level of intent or action by the defendant. And Pennsylvania’s life without parole sentence is mandatory, meaning that with an exception for juvenile offenders, every life sentence is a sentence to death by incarceration, Cozzens said.

As a result, Pennsylvania has about 1,200 people sentenced to die in prison for a death they did not cause or intend, Cozzens said. Among them, 70% are Black, a number disproportionate to the population and driven by the discretion of prosecutors to pursue or forgo the charge and the role racial bias plays in convictions for lower-culpability crimes, advocates say.”

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