Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected an appeal from a group of individuals serving life without parole sentences for felony murder on procedural grounds, affirming the finding of a lower court that it lacked the jurisdiction to hear the original complaint.
Despite this rejection, Bret Grote, legal director at the Abolitionist Law Center and the attorney who argued for the appellants in front of the state Supreme Court in April, tells Pittsburgh City Paper it’s not all bad news for reform advocates.
“There's been two years of very favorable press coverage in which we've been shaping the narrative around the grave injustice that is the sentencing scheme for people in Pennsylvania who are convicted of felony murder,” Grote tells City Paper, “And we're preparing the court for the constitutional issue.”
The appellants — four people who were convicted of felony murder in their late teens or early 20s who have each spent between 24 and 48 years in prison without the possibility of a parole hearing — sought to overturn the Pennsylvania law mandating life without parole for this distinct charge.
"The felony murder concept is, if a death occurs during the commission of another felony, that is considered a form of murder that's attributed to anybody who participated in the felony, regardless of whether they had any criminal intent in regard to the death of the other person," Grote told NPR last year.
There are more than 1,000 people in Pennsylvania serving mandatory life without parole sentences for felony murder, also known as second-degree murder.
Pennsylvania is one of more than 40 states with a felony murder law, but its mandatory sentence of life without parole for felony murder is among the most severe. Only a handful of states, as well as the federal system, mandate the sentence for the charge, according to the Marshall Project. Two states, Kentucky and Hawaii, have abolished felony murder as a criminal offense.
Lawyers for the appellants argue Pennsylvania’s felony murder law disproportionately targets young people, women, and Black and brown people. In Pennsylvania, about 70% of people serving life without parole are Black, according to an analysis from the Abolitionist Law Center. Recent census estimates say 12% of Pennsylvanians are Black.
The case originated in July 2020 as an attempt to sue the state Parole Board in Commonwealth Court for permission to apply for parole, which the board had denied the appellants on the basis of their sentence.
The appellants, represented by the Pittsburgh-based advocacy group Abolitionist Law Center, the Amistad Law Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, argued that mandatory denial of parole eligibility for felony murder is cruel and unusual punishment under both the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions.
In May 2021, the Commonwealth Court dismissed the lawsuit, saying they lacked the jurisdiction to rule on post-conviction matters. The plaintiffs appealed that ruling, arguing that their petition is not a post-conviction matter, since the appellants are not challenging their conviction or the validity of their sentences, but the state statute that mandates life without parole for felony murder.
On Oct. 19, the state Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's ruling that it lacked the jurisdiction to hear the original complaint.
Although he says the outcome was not unexpected, Grote disagrees with the high court’s decision, telling City Paper he thinks the court went through “contortions to try to prevent us from challenging the parole code in this regard.”
Next, Grote and the Abolitionist Law Center look to the state Superior Court to decide a case Grote argued last month on behalf of Derek Lee. Because it’s a direct appeal of Lee’s felony murder conviction, Grote says there is no question of the court’s jurisdiction.
“The constitutional claims that we raised are squarely in front of the court,” Grote says. “There’s no ducking it. They have to make a ruling.”
Grote says there’s no timeline indicating when the Superior Court will decide Lee’s case.