Media Release: Janet and Janine Africa are paroled after forty years of incarceration!!!

The Abolitionist Law Center and the People’s Law Office are proud to share that Janet Holloway Africa and Janine Phillips Africa of the MOVE 9 have been released from state custody after more than forty years of incarceration. Earlier this morning, the MOVE sisters were finally released on parole from SCI Cambridge Springs and are now with family and friends. The sisters have been battling for their freedom after being consistently denied parole for a decade despite an impeccable disciplinary record and extensive record of mentorship and community service during their time in prison.

Following their 2018 parole denial, attorneys from Abolitionist Law Center and People’s Law Office filed petitions for habeas corpus seeking their release from prison. The habeas petitions challenged their parole denials on the grounds that the decisions were arbitrary and lacking in any evidence that janet or Janine presented a risk to public safety. Under pressure from litigation and with a court date for May 28 looming, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (board) granted Janet and Janine parole on May 14, 2019, just one day after the anniversary of the notorious May 13, 1985 bombing of the MOVE home.

“The release of Janet and Janine is a victory not only for them and their loved ones, but also for the MOVE Organization and the movement to free all political prisoners,” said attorney Brad Thomson of People’s Law Office. “Janet and Janine were excellent candidates for parole. They have been described by DOC staff as model prisoners and neither of them has had a single disciplinary incident in over twenty years. While in prison, they have participated in community fundraisers, and social programs, including training service dogs. They are remarkable women to deserve to be free.”

Like Debbie and Mike Africa, who were released last year, Janet and Janine are now able to experience holding their loved ones outside of prison walls for the first time in decades. The release of Janet and Janine after forty years is the culmination of the MOVE organization, public support, legal action, and policy changes.

Three other members of the MOVE 9 remain incarcerated (Chuck, Delbert and Eddie Africa), while two others (Merle Africa and Phil Africa) died in custody. Abolitionist Law Center and People’s Law Office represent Chuck, Delbert and Eddie in the struggle for their freedom. To support the fight, you may donate to the MOVE9 Legal Fund.

Press Contact:

Mike Africa Jr.,MikeAfricaJr [at] gmail.com

Brad Thomson bradjaythomson[at]gmail.com 773-297-9689

 

Media Release: PA Superior Court Urges PA Supreme Court to Review Whether Avis Lee can Challenge Life-Without-Parole Sentence Imposed at 18 years-old

For Immediate Release

Friday, March 1, 2019: The Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a unanimous en banc decision today disallowing Avis Lee the opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of her life without parole sentence, which was imposed for her role as a lookout in armed robbery 39 years ago that resulted in a homicide. The Superior Court held that it was “constrained to affirm” the lower court’s dismissal of Ms. Lee’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) Petition on the basis that only the Pennsylvania or United States Supreme Court could permit a consideration of the constitutionality of Ms. Lee’s sentence. In reaching this conclusion the Superior Court wrote: “We would urge our Supreme Court to review this issue in light of the research [on adolescent social and neuro-development] available even since Batts II was decided in 2017.”

Ms. Lee brought this challenge to her decision in March 2016 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that the right established in the 2012 decision of Miller v. Alabama that prohibited mandatory life- without-parole sentences for children younger than 18 years of age applied retroactively to older cases. In Montgomery, the Supreme Court found that the right in Miller was substantive, not merely procedural, and that it prohibited a sentence of life-without-parole – commonly referred to as “Death by Incarceration” – upon any defendant whose crime “reflected the transient immaturity of youth.”

In the Superior Court, Avis was arguing for the right to make an argument, to be heard on the merits on this issue for the first time, as she has never had the chance to argue that her sentence is unconstitutional under the new constitutional standards of Miller and Montgomery. On October 23, 2018, counsel for Avis argued in front of a 9-judge en banc panel that she deserves at least that one opportunity to challenge her sentence under current law, and there is nothing in state or federal law to prohibit that. The Philadelphia courthouse was packed to overflowing with the family members of those serving DBI sentences.

The offense Ms. Lee is currently serving a death-by-incarceration sentence for occurred in November 1979, when she agreed to serve as a lookout in an armed robbery. When the victim attempted to resist her co-defendant and older brother shot him, resulting in his death. Ms. Lee was convicted of 2nd degree felony murder, which in Pennsylvania is defined as a homicide that occurs in the course of another felony. The offense does not require any intent to kill on the part of the defendant, and it carries one penalty – death by incarceration.

Ms. Lee’s 2016 PCRA petition argued that a sentencing court should be required to consider the factors identified by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller and Montgomery in order to determine if her sentence amounted to disproportionate punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The petition contained extensive discussion of the poverty, trauma, and violence that Ms. Lee had been exposed and subjected to since she the very first years of her life. The petition also included copious examples of her exemplary prison record, including going without any prison misconduct for more than a quarter of a century, and her involvement in numerous volunteer and service projects.

Ms. Lee is also widely known and admired for her irrepressible optimism, which she maintains in spite of her circumstances. When informed of today’s opinion, she said: “Thank you for standing by me and continuing to stay strong, because I will [too]. Eventually we will prevail.”

The Abolitionist Law Center represents Ms. Lee, along with Duquesne Law School Professor Tiffany Sizemore and University of Pittsburgh Law Professor Jules Lobel. ALC legal director, Bret Grote, said

We are not surprised by this outcome and have always recognized that ultimately it is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that will determine whether the PCRA statute should be read consistent with its text and purpose and permit Ms. Lee the mere opportunity to argue this issue on the merits. It is beyond dispute that Avis, beloved and respected by all who know her, is serving a sentence that lacks any social or penological purpose. To read the law in such as a way as to keep the courthouse doors forever closed to meritorious claims against permanent punishment is to enshrine a tortured and incorrect formalism over substantive justice. We intend to appeal.

Abolitionist Law Center Communications Director, Miracle Jones, added:

When it comes to fighting against Death-by-Incarceration at the ALC defeat is not an option. We are part of a powerful and growing movement that will not rest until every person sentenced to DBI has the opportunity to return to their families and communities, until the right to redemption becomes the North Star of the justice system.

#FREEAVISLEE


Press Contact:

Miracle Jones
(She/Her/Hers)
412-346-6537 (google voice)
Director of Communications
Abolitionist Law Center
communications@alcenter.org

Media Release: En Banc Hearing Granted For Avis Lee

 

For Immediate Release 

October 16, 2018

(Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

On Tuesday, October 23, at 9:30 a.m. the Abolitionist Law Center will argue at an En Banc hearing in front of the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the case is the Commonwealth v Lee, where the petitioner, Avis Lee, is arguing that the right established in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana decisions applies to all adolescents and not just strictly to those who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. This groundbreaking case has the potential to alter the way the Commonwealth treats mandatory life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

The petitioner in this case, Avis Lee, has served over thirty-eight years in prison. Like many people in Pennsylvania, Avis received a mandatory life sentence under a felony-murder charge. At the age of 18, Avis served as a lookout while her brother and his friend attempted a robbery. After a brief struggle, the victim was shot by Avis’s brother and collapsed in a parking lot. Avis flagged down a bus driver in order to get the victim help, but despite her efforts, he still passed away. Avis was convicted and sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole. Since her incarceration, Avis has completed extensive rehabilitative programming and performed countless hours serving others through her work in the prison and with community groups, including being a mentor and assisting in braille translations.

As described in ALC’s recently published report, A Way Out: Abolishing Death by Incarceration in Pennsylvania, as people mature, they are less likely to engage in criminal conduct. Of the more than 5,300 people serving life-without-parole in Pennsylvania, approximately half committed the offense resulting in their LWOP sentence before the age of 25.

 

This case therefore is representative of hundreds of individuals who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole in their youth but who are currently ineligible to be resentenced due solely to an arbitrary age cut-off.

 

Petitioner has argued to the Superior Court that the same scientific and legal reasoning behind Miller and Montgomery apply with equal force to those who were younger than 18 and those like Avis, who were adolescents and possessed the same characteristics of youth. The Court has decided to take the rare step of hearing the case en banc, meaning that 9 judges will hear the matter and will possess the power to overrule the Court’s earlier cases that upheld a cutoff at 18 years of age.

 

Allegheny County is the place where the crime occurred. The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, headed by DA Zappala, is opposing the petition and has not shown a willingness to reconsider the pursuit of LWOP sentences. By contrast, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner came out in support of Pennsylvania Senate Bill 942 this month, legislation introduced by Senator Street that would allow parole consideration for all serving life sentences after 15 years.

 

That Avis Lee, who was 18 at the time of her offense and who had repeated and severe experiences of trauma in her childhood and adolescence, committed her offense during a time of ongoing maturation and development is a historical fact at this point. The question in front of the Court is whether she can proceed to a merits determination as to whether her sentence is excessive in light of Miller and Montgomery.

Contact: Miracle Jones, Abolitionist Law Center, communications@alcenter.org

Media Release: A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania

New Data: Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Lead the Nation and World in Life Without Parole Sentences

Comprehensive Study Shows that Life Without Parole Sentences in Pennsylvania are Imposed on the Young with Alarming Racial Disparities

(Pittsburgh, PA) Philadelphia County has 2,694 people serving life without parole sentences (LWOP), which is more than any other county in the United States and far more than any other country in the world, according to a new data analysis released today by the Abolitionist Law Center.  A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania [Full Report] [Abridged Report] found Pennsylvania has 5,346 people serving LWOP, making the state a national leader in the use of the punishment; only Florida, with twice the population, has more people serving LWOP. State Representative Jason Dawkins and State Senator Sharif Street have filed legislation that would allow parole eligibility for all lifers after 15 years of incarceration.

The report refers to life without parole as “Death by Incarceration” (DBI). Key findings include:

 

  • Most of the people serving DBI were convicted and sentenced when they were 25 or younger, a period of life when brain development and maturation remains ongoing, according to recent neuroscientific research.
  • More than 70 percent of those serving DBI are over 40 and nearly half (2,377 people) are over 50. The practice continues even though research shows that criminal activity drops significantly after age 40 and despite the fact that locking up a person over 55 is two to three times more expensive.
  •  Black Pennsylvanians are serving DBI at a rate more than 18 times higher than that of their white counterparts. Out of Philadelphia’s 2,694 people serving DBI, 84 percent are Black. In Allegheny County, 13 percent of the county’s residents are Black, but constitute 76 percent of those serving DBI sentences (409 out of 541 people).

“This report presents a definitive portrait of a punishment that is archaic, cruel, unjustified, and indefensible,” said Bret Grote, Legal Director of the Abolitionist Law Center and co-author of the report. “Death by incarceration sentences do not keep the public safer. The human and economic costs are staggering and growing by the year, as thousands of aging, rehabilitated men and women are locked away needlessly. Fortunately, there is also a rapidly growing movement determined to make parole eligibility for all lifers a reality.”

In all cases involving defendants 18 years of age or older, Pennsylvania law does not allow for individualized consideration of a defendant’s circumstances; instead it mandates automatic DBI sentences to many who never actually killed or intended to kill anyone. As the report states, DBI is “a failed policy predicated upon the fallacy that the trajectory of a person’s life – including their capacity for rehabilitation, transformation, and redemption – can be accurately predicted at the time of sentencing.”

Avis Lee is an example of a person serving a DBI sentence because none of the particulars of her case were taken into consideration at sentencing – and may have made a difference. Ms. Lee has served 38 years of a DBI sentence due to a robbery committed by her brother that tragically went wrong and someone lost his life. Ms. Lee was only 18 years old and had been told by her brother to serve as a look out during a robbery. Ms. Lee had turned to drugs and alcohol after a childhood riddled with sexual abuse, violence, poverty, and the death of her mother. After the shooting, she flagged down a bus and told the driver a man was injured. For more than 25 years, she has had no disciplinary infractions in prison. Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Superior Court agreed to hear her claim that her mandatory life sentence was disproportionate because of her youth. There is hope for Ms. Lee, though not many others.

The Philadelphia DA’s Office is considering reviewing certain cases of excessive sentences, including mandatory life without parole sentences, and will pursue a lesser sentence when legally viable. The trend toward electing reform-oriented, less punitive district attorneys across the country could lead to similar efforts at sentence review being implemented in DA offices on a national scale.

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The Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners, and organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. https://abolitionistlawcenter.org/

The Batts II Decision: The Favorable and Where It Falls Short

 

Statement by Amistad Law Project and Abolitionist Law Center

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court released their opinion in Commonwealth v. Batts (Batts II), a case that decided the appropriate procedure and sentence for the approximately 500 Pennsylvanians who were sentenced to Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) before Miller v. Alabama. While Batts II reversed the unconstitutional sentence of life-without-parole imposed on 14 year-old Qu’eed Batts and created some procedural safeguards for the re-sentencings of the hundreds of Pennsylvanians serving an illegal JLWOP sentence, it also affirmed the status quo in current juvenile homicide sentencing and re-sentencing that imposes draconian mandatory minimums on children, all but guaranteeing they will not be released from prison until they spend more than twice their life span at the time of the offense locked in a cage. The legal work and organizing that has brought us this far has won crucial and necessary victories, but this opinion–and its shortcomings–remind us how much further we have to go to bring our people home so that they can demonstrate and live their redemption, be restored to the community, and be the leaders we need to foster healing and accountability.

In Batts II, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed Batts’ sentence of JLWOP for the second time, holding that a JLWOP sentence was not supported by the evidence in the sentencing record, which showed that Batts–as a 14-year-old–had the attributes of a child recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as rendering him less culpable and that there was considerable evidence of his potential for rehabilitation. The Court also held that the Commonwealth must give a defendant notice if it is going to seek JLWOP. Critically, the Court established that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is permanently incorrigible and therefore incapable of rehabilitation when it is seeking a JLWOP sentence. These holdings should mark Batts II as a seminal opinion that finally brings Pennsylvania in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama outlawing mandatory life without parole for children.

And because the notion of “permanent incorrigibility,” based on the idea that the government can determine that a child will never change or rehabilitate or mature for the rest of their life, is itself inherently unprovable and the judicial equivalent of the racist concept of the “Superpredator,” this decision marks an important milestone in ending JLWOP sentences once and for all.

We can pick apart the legal issues in the PA Supreme Court’s decision in Batts II but we would be remiss if we missed the fact that Qu’eed Batts is a person. The Batts II opinion lays out the multiple systems that failed him and the difficult life he lived prior to the homicide that led to his incarceration. We can look at these 500 JLWOP cases in Pennsylvania as legal issues, but we must also look at the defendants in these cases as people, who, as children, did very harmful things, but who, because they were children, are especially capable of change and redemption. Anything less is an affront to justice.

We believe in real second chances. Many people sentenced to die in prison as kids, like Qu’eed Batts, never had a first chance. This is where Batts II falls extremely short. Since the U.S. Supreme Court, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, ruled that Miller was a new substantive rule of constitutional law, Philadelphia has slowly moved to comply with the ruling and to resentence the 300 juvenile lifers who were convicted and sentenced in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has looked to 18 Pa.C.S. §1102.1(a), which is the statute that the PA legislature passed in response to the 2012 Miller decision. It created a 35 year minimum for first degree murder for people who were 15 to 17 at the time of their offense. It also specifically does not apply to people who were sentenced before Miller that make up the vast majority of those still serving unconstitutional JLWOP sentences.

The PA Supreme Court’s acquiescence to what is happening in Philadelphia and across the state should focus our attention on 1102.1(a) itself. Why are children who even the Commonwealth does not contend are “irredeemable” forced to spend a minimum of 35 years in prison before they can go before a parole board and argue for release? Why, after serving a minimum of 35 years in prison, are these people forced to spend the rest of their lives on parole? Children have a greater capacity for reform. Most people age out of criminal behavior by their thirties. This re-sentencing scheme keeps people sentenced to die in prison as kids incarcerated into their late forties or early fifties, at the earliest, before they are afforded the opportunity for someone to take a look at their case and decide if they should get a second chance.

Batts II is not a defeat but it is a call to continue fighting for justice and redemption and freedom. We don’t just want an end to the barbaric practice of sentencing children to die in prison. We also want a system that is transformative and fair.

The legislature, prosecutors, and courts in Pennsylvania are intent on conceding as little ground as they think they can get away with, holding the line like the segregationists of old, and seeking to preserve the punitive ethos and practices of a racist system of mass incarceration. It is our responsibility to fight this, to push the line further toward freedom and a new paradigm that centers restorative justice and the right to redemption.