Pa. Supreme Court to weigh life sentences for felony murder

New Pittsburgh Courier/Public Source, 06/04/24: “Marie ‘Mechie’ Scott is like most 70-year-olds. Her cheeks are dotted with age spots, her cornrows are graying and her forehead crinkles when she breaks into a laugh. She moves slowly, uses a wheelchair and has chronic back pain that makes it excruciating to walk, cough or lie on her side. She paints, sings and collects crocheted animals.

Unlike most 70-year-olds, though, Scott has spent her entire adulthood behind bars at the State Correctional Institution in Muncy, Lycoming County. Without some kind of intervention — a change in the law or a court ruling in a case she has no hand in — she will die in prison.

When Scott was 19, she was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for felony murder. Under the felony murder doctrine, a person accused of committing a felony can be charged with murder for a death that occurs during the felony, even if the defendant was not the killer and had no intent to kill. In Pennsylvania, conviction comes with a mandatory sentence of life without parole, one of the most severe renderings of the felony murder rule in the country.

Scott’s fate could now hinge on a case that originated in Allegheny County. This fall, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear a criminal appeal from Derek Lee, a Penn Hills man half Scott’s age, on the grounds that mandatory life without parole for felony murder constitutes cruel punishment, violating the Pennsylvania constitution.

Lee, now 36, was convicted of felony murder in 2016. He participated in a robbery in 2014 when his accomplice fatally shot the homeowner. In February, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear Lee’s appeal. Bret Grote and Quinn Cozzens, the Abolitionist Law Center co-counsel on the case who also brought Scott’s lawsuit, expect that oral arguments will be heard in October.

Across Pennsylvania, 1,131 people are currently incarcerated for felony murder. A favorable decision for Lee won’t guarantee release for the rest of them, including Scott. It’s unlikely to lead to fulfillment of any of her longtime dreams, like running a taco truck. It might give her a chance to linger in her daughter’s arms, or at her son’s grave.”

Read the full article here.