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/