Constitutionality of Juvenile Sentencing

Commonwealth v. Felder, 2017 WL 6505643 (Pa. Super. 2017) (unreported), allocatur granted Jun. 19, 2018, appeal docket 18 EAP 2018

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to review the constitutionality of a sentence of 50-years to life for a juvenile in light of its decision in Commonwealth v. Batts, 163 A.3d 410 (Pa. 2017). In Batts, the Court held that under Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), the Eighth Amendment forbids mandatory life sentencing without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. There is a presumption against imposing a life-sentence for a juvenile offender and the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is incapable of rehabilitation. In this case, Michael Felder argues that Batts should apply because a 50-year incarceration sentence is a de facto life sentence.

Superior Court summarizes the facts of the underlying incident as follows:

On September 3, 2009, Felder and another young man played a two-on-two basketball game against brothers Jarrett and Malcolm Green, on the outdoor courts at the Shepard Recreational Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The game was still young when Felder became upset and retrieved a .380 semiautomatic handgun from his gym bag. Felder shot Jarrett Green in the stomach and leg, killing him. He also shot and wounded Malcolm Green. Felder was apprehended on September 27, 2009. He was tried and convicted by a jury of first-degree murder regarding Jarrett Green and aggravated assault regarding Malcolm Green.

Slip Op. at 2.

Felder, a juvenile at the time of the crime, was sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. On appeal, Superior Court vacated Felder’s sentence pursuant to Miller and Batts and remanded to Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas for resentencing. That court sentenced Felder to 50 years minimum incarceration.

On his second appeal to Superior Court , Felder argued that a 50-year minimum sentence is a de facto life sentence and that “[p]revailing law forbids juveniles from life sentences without parole, except in extraordinary circumstances” and the Commonwealth has the burden to prove those circumstances exist. Slip Op. at 4.

Superior Court distinguished Felder’s case from Miller by emphasizing that Miller merely makes mandatory life sentences without parole unconstitutional. Miller did not address a situation such as Felder’s where a juvenile is given a lengthy sentence upon the discretion of the trial court.

Ultimately, Superior Court disagreed with Felder’s arguments and held that when a juvenile convicted of homicide and subjected to a discretionary sentence that “may approach, but does not clearly exceed life expectancy” that sentence does not violate Miller, the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or Article 1, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted allocatur on the following issue:

Does not a sentence of 50 years to life imposed upon a juvenile constitute a de facto life sentence requiring the sentencing court, as mandated by this Court in Commonwealth v. Batts, 163 A.3d 410 (Pa. 2017) (“Batts II”), first find permanent incorrigibility, irreparable corruptions or irretrievable depravity beyond a reasonable doubt?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.