Sentence Structure: Juvenile sentencing decision will have big impact in Pa. | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Sentence Structure: Juvenile sentencing decision will have big impact in Pa.

[Juvenile lifers] should be treated based on the facts of their case rather than mandatory sentences"


In September 1993, two teen-agers robbed and murdered Jay Weiss, a North Side pizza deliveryman.

 They took the pizza and the $100 he had on him and then escaped to a nearby vacant attic to feast. Not long after the murder, police found one of the teens, asleep, next to a half-eaten pizza and the delivery bag.

The two 16-year-olds — Dorian Lamore and Phillip Foxx — were tried as adults and convicted of murder. The mandatory sentence for such a crime in Pennsylvania is life without parole.

But now, because of recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lamore, Fox and others in the same situation could someday walk free. 

On June 25, the court ruled in the case of Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles are not constitutional.

Foxx, for one, is relieved. In a phone interview orchestrated by a chaplain at the State Correctional Institute at Somerset, where Foxx is serving his life sentence, Foxx says he's a reformed man.

He's a member of the prison's Lutheran counsel and a mentor to younger prisoners. He hasn't had a prison misconduct in 13 years and he's drug- and alcohol-free. He says he's ready to join society again.

"When I was young, I made foolish mistakes and I made some foolish choices and I hurt people," he says. "I've grown since then. I'm a man who understands the consequences of his actions." 

But Jay Weiss Jr., the son of Foxx's and Lamore's victim, isn't buying that or the Supreme Court's decision. News of the Supreme Court's decision left him flabbergasted.

"My understanding was that these guys would never get out of prison," he says. "I don't even know how to think about it. But I will fight tooth and nail to keep these guys locked up forever."

And, at some point, that's exactly what he'll have to do. 

Bradley Bridge, an attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia who represents many Pennsylvania juvenile lifers appealing their life sentences, says the Supreme Court's ruling means "every single life without parole sentence is improper for juveniles." 

Pennsylvania incarcerates more juvenile lifers than any other state in the country. So the Supreme Court's opinion will have its biggest effect here, where some 480 prisoners serve life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18. 

But the Supreme Court wasn't specific about how those cases should now be dealt with. So it's now up to Pennsylvania's legislature to adapt.

The first step, according to state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery County), who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, is to convene a meeting in the next week or so to discuss options. It seems clear that juvenile lifers will now get the opportunity to sit in front of a parole board to plead for freedom. But it's not clear when that should happen. Ten years after a conviction? Twenty years? (In the case of Lamore and Foxx, the case is even more complicated because the judge gave them an additional 25- to 50-year sentence in case an "idiot" politician decided to one day let them out.)

"I think [juvenile lifers] should be treated based on the facts of their case rather than mandatory sentences," Greenleaf says. "Sentencing should depend on a person's age, their background, their previous criminal record. Not some automatic rule imposing a life sentence." 

Rev. John Cochran, a former pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church on the North Side, agrees with Greenleaf. He believes even prisoners like Lamore and Foxx deserve a second chance. 

Cochran, in fact, leads an unofficial group called "Friends of Phil," which sends letters, occasional money and other gifts to Phillip Foxx, who was a member of Trinity Lutheran before he got locked up.  

"I know exactly where Phil's life went wrong and why it went wrong and the disastrous consequences," he says. "But there is a wonderful human being there who will make a wonderful contribution to society if he's eventually given a chance to prove that he's reformed himself." 

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