In Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court’s rulings were based on developments in social and neuroscience regarding the maturation process of adolescents and young adults that make them less criminally culpable. Research overwhelmingly shows that younger people are less capable of appreciating risks and consequences, exercising impulse control, extracting themselves from harmful family and social environments, and resisting negative peer and familial influence. The research also overwhelmingly shows that this maturation process continues well past the age of 18 and into the mid-to-late 20s. As a result, the same factors that make mandatory LWOP cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles also apply to many people who were older than 18 at the time of the crime for which they were convicted. This could apply to roughly half of the 5,400 people sentenced to LWOP in Pennsylvania.
Avis Lee was 18 years old at the time of the crime for which she was convicted. Avis has been incarcerated for over 36 years for second-degree homicide, also known as felony-murder. Avis accompanied her older brother and another man as a lookout on an attempted robbery. While nobody involved went in to the robbery intending to kill anyone, Avis watched as her brother fired his gun once, killing the man he was attempting to rob. Court records show, Avis
flagged down a bus and told the driver a man had been injured and needed help. An ambulance
was called. Avis went home. Six months later a co-defendant identified her to the police and she confessed to her role in the plan to commit the robbery.
For her role as a lookout in an attempted robbery, Avis was convicted of felony-murder. In Pennsylvania, the mandatory sentence for felony-murder is LWOP. In addition to her young age and all of the accompanying characteristics of youth that make her sentence unconstitutional, Avis’s sentence is also unconstitutional because she neither killed nor intended to kill. But due to the mandatory sentencing scheme in Pennsylvania, Avis was not permitted to present mitigating factors for sentencing. Currently, prosecutors are seeking to keep Avis incarcerated until her death because she was slightly older than 18.
For almost four decades Avis has been incarcerated. She has been unsuccessful in her Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) filings due to the mandatory nature of her sentence and has not been able to go before the parole board despite having an exemplary record. In 2017, She was granted an En Banc hearing in front of the Pennsylvania Superior Court to appeal her PCRA denial. Avis case is representative of the thousands of people impacted by the mandatory sentencing scheme. Yet, Avis lives her life to help others.
She has spent her time volunteering in and outside of the prison walls to help others. Avis has dedicated her life to reform and helping others.During her time in prison Avis has never had one write-up for violence, and has been totally misconduct free for more than a quarter-century. She has completed numerous rehabilitation programs, and engaged in a number of service and volunteer projects, including being a braille transcriber since 1999. A play co-written about her life and her case, “Chin to the Sky,” reflects Avis’s acceptance of responsibility and willingness to help others learn from her mistakes.
I hope that youths hear my story
and don’t make the same or
similar mistakes like I have and
find themselves in this situation.
Avis is represented by the Abolitionist Law Center.