Pennsylvania Reckons with Its Draconian Laws on Life Imprisonment

Bolts, 03/12/24: “Derek Lee thought he might spend the rest of his life fighting to get out of prison for a murder he didn’t commit. “I had to draw strength from God to keep fighting and believing,” he told Bolts in an email, recalling his dread when the pandemic shut down programs in his prison. He retained some access to the law library, though, and connected with new outside lawyers to challenge the constitutionality of his sentence of life without the possibility of parole for felony murder.

Lee received a ray of hope last month when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear his appeal.

What the justices decide might ultimately give 1,100 others a chance at freedom as well. The case, which the court will hear later this year, marks a potential turning point for a state that’s exceptionally punitive by national standards in handing out life without parole sentences.

‘With the recent development at the supreme court,’ Lee told Bolts in an email last week, ‘many ppl have been sharing with me how this possibility has restored a [sense] of hope in their life to have another chance at freedom.’

In 2014, Lee, then age 29, participated in a burglary in which his accomplice fatally shot the homeowner. Lee had not been involved in the killing and wasn’t even in the room at the time. Nonetheless, two years later, he was convicted of felony murder, a type of charge that prosecutors can bring against someone who was involved in a crime that led to a death, even if the death was unintentional or the defendant didn’t participate in the killing.

In Pennsylvania, felony murder is classified as second-degree murder, and all convictions for second-degree murder trigger an automatic sentence of life without parole. These abnormally draconian laws have made Pennsylvania home to near-record numbers of people sentenced to die in prison. The state has the second-highest number of people serving life without parole, nearly 5,100 people; approximately one in five have been convicted of felony murder.”

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