Derek Lee has been sentenced to die in prison on a second-degree murder conviction for a crime in which he did not take a life.
He did not kill or attempt to kill anyone, his lawyers say. But, in 2016, prosecutors working under District Attorney Stephen Zappala convinced a common pleas judge that Lee should be sentenced to life without parole.
Now, Pittsburgh-based law firm Abolitionist Law Center is hoping to overturn this through an appeal underway in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.
Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, argued Tuesday on Lee’s behalf against the state’s mandatory life without parole sentencing for second-degree murder, which he says is “grossly disproportionate” to Lee's involvement in the underlying crime. In legal terms, Grote is arguing the sentencing violates Lee's constitutional right to protection from cruel and unusual punishments.
In 2014, Lee was charged with a litany of offenses for his participation in a burglary attempt that led to the death of Leonard Butler. Although he was never accused of firing the bullet that ended Butler's life, he was found guilty two years later of second-degree murder. According to witness testimony, Lee wasn't in the room when the shooting occurred.
In Pennsylvania, second-degree murder is defined as a killing committed either without premeditation or while the accused is participating in a related felony. In Pennsylvania and 47 other states, if a death occurs during the commission of a felony, anyone deemed an accomplice, such as a getaway driver or a second participant in a robbery, can be charged with second-degree murder, sometimes termed felony-murder.
More than 1,000 people in Pennsylvania who did not kill or intend to kill anyone are consequently serving life sentences for felony-murder without parole eligibility. Similar patterns play out in other states. One study of 1,000 incarcerated people in California found that 72% of women convicted of murder and serving life sentences did not kill anyone.
Pennsylvania is one of eight states across the country where second-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Opponents of mass incarceration often refer to life without parole sentences as “death-by-incarceration.”
With Lee’s case, the Abolitionist Law Center hopes to draw attention to structural injustices they say underlie felony-murder laws, which have been found to disproportionately impact youth, Black people, and women.
“While only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is Black, about 70 percent of people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences for felony-murder are Black,” according to a ALC press release.
The legal advocates also argue Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentence of life without parole for second-degree murder is notably harsh compared to other states and nations.
“Pennsylvania is one of the only states in the country and the world to continue this practice of permanent incarceration for felony-murder — an offense which many states and most countries have abolished or never prosecuted in the first place,” says Quinn Cozzens, a staff attorney with the Abolitionist Law Center. “At a minimum, people like Derek should be afforded the opportunity to one day return home to their families and communities.”
Derek Lee’s mother, Betty Lee, tells Pittsburgh City Paper that even though the state prison system doesn’t offer what incarcerated people need to rehabilitate themselves, such as counseling and adequate medical care, Derek has nonetheless fully dedicated himself to personal growth and change.
“My son is certainly not the person he was when he first got locked up. He was angry, not focused, all over the place. He has put in the work, and is now assistant to the chaplain, preaching, singing in the church choir, he was appointed to the executive board of the Pennsylvania Lifer’s Association, and he’s pouring into other young men who are coming home from prison, helping them to see and handle challenges and situations differently,” Lee says. “I think he just realized that he needed to take control of his own life, no matter where he was, whether the opportunity was offered in there to him or not."
Lee says her son and people like him are well-positioned to mentor and support young people involved with the criminal legal system and that, if given the opportunity to return home to Pittsburgh, Derek Lee could offer a valuable service to his community.
“Who better to come back here and pour into our younger generations who are going in the wrong direction than those that have done it themselves?”
Winning this case would not ensure Derek’s release from prison, but it could get him a parole hearing, and with it, the possibility of another chance at life outside jail.
“People deserve a second chance,” Betty says. “If you show a change and you take that initiative to make that change, you deserve a second chance. And I don’t speak that just for my son. I speak that for all who take that initiative to want to do better with themselves. Give them that chance.”