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Pa. high court grapples with life term for juveniles

Written by The Associated Press | Dec 7, 2016 5:00 PM
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(Harrisburg) -- A case before Pennsylvania's highest court on Wednesday could soon produce new sentencing rules for juvenile homicide defendants in the state who are facing the possibility of life in prison without parole.

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in an appeal brought by Qu'eed Batts, 25, who was convicted of killing a teenager with two point-blank shots to the head and wounding a man in a gang-related attack in Easton a decade ago.

Batts was 14 when he shot the two men in an effort to impress members of the Bloods gang. He was originally sentenced to life without parole and received the same penalty in a new sentencing hearing after a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

The state court, in taking Batts' appeal, said it wanted to figure out whether steps should be taken to make sure that juvenile life-without-parole sentences are handed down only in rare cases, as stipulated in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In deciding Batts' appeal, the court could set a higher bar for the imposition of juvenile life-without-parole sentences or require experts to testify in such cases.

The justices also are considering whether juveniles facing life should get the sorts of legal safeguards now in place for defendants facing the death penalty.

Batts' lawyer, Marsha Levick, told the justices that his sentence is unconstitutional and does not meet the federal standard that the most severe sentences be reserved for those who are irreparably corrupt, irretrievably depraved or permanently incorrigible.

She said prosecutors should bear the burden of proving to a jury that Batts would qualify under that standard, which she said was meant only for "the most rare and uncommon juvenile." Experts would have to weigh in, she said.

"The issue of permanent incorrigibility is inextricably linked with the science," she said.

Hugh Burns, arguing for the Northampton County district attorney, told the justices that since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, no state has enacted the type of procedures that Batts seeks. Burns also said the federal justices put the legal burden on defendants to demonstrate that they are not among the unusual juvenile murder defendants for whom life without parole remains justified.

"In the vast majority of cases, there isn't going to be a dispute" between defense and prosecutors, Burns argued.

In a July brief, prosecutors argued that "the establishment of a procedure to sentence juvenile murderers is inherently a legislative matter."

The General Assembly in 2012 passed a new law for punishing juveniles convicted of first- or second-degree murder but did not make it retroactive. Under that law, Batts would have been subject to a mandatory minimum of 25 years.

The justices accepted Batts' appeal after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that its 2012 ruling was retroactive.

Batts' brief filed this summer said his mother gave birth to him when she was 13 and his father was sent to federal prison when Batts was 8. The boy ended up in foster care.

About 500 Pennsylvania lifers were sentenced as juveniles before the court decisions, and a majority have been in prison for at least 20 years, Levick said. Their resentencing requests are grinding through the county courts. Nationally, the figure is about 2,500.

An earlier story is below:

Pennsylvania's highest court is considering what to do about inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles after the U-S Supreme Court limited that punishment to the most extreme cases.

The state Supreme Court has heard arguments in 25-year-old Qu'eed Batts' request for a new sentencing hearing.

He's convicted of killing a teenager and wounding a man in a gang-related attack in Easton a decade ago.

The court will decide whether to establish new rules for sentencing juvenile killers and, if so, whether they should include the types of legal safeguards in place for defendants facing the death penalty.

Court records say Batts shot the two men in an effort to impress members of the Bloods gang.

He's twice been sentenced to life without parole.

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