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Pennsylvania high court takes up challenge to the state’s life-without-parole sentences

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center, home to the Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, Pa., on Nov. 6, 2020.

 Julio Cortez / AP Photo

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center, home to the Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, Pa., on Nov. 6, 2020.

Pennsylvania’s high court will consider whether some automatic life sentences for those convicted of murder violate constitutional protections for defendants, the justices said Friday.

The appeal being pursued by Derek Lee, convicted of a 2014 killing, argues the state’s life-without-parole law violates prohibitions in the Pennsylvania and U.S. constitutions against cruel punishment.

In the order accepting the appeal, the Supreme Court said it would focus on the constitutionality of the mandatory life sentence in Lee’s case, where he argues he “did not kill or intend to kill and therefore had categorically-diminished culpability.”

Pennsylvania law makes someone liable for murder if they participate in a felony that leads to death, and life with no possibility of parole is currently the state’s only possible sentence for those convicted of second-degree murder.

Advocates say there are about 5,200 people in Pennsylvania currently serving what they call “death by incarceration” sentences, the highest per capita rate among states. The policy affects Black men disproportionately, as about 70% of those serving life-without-parole in Pennsylvania are Black.

Quinn Cozzens, a lawyer for Lee with the Abolitionist Law Center, said he believes if the high court sides with Lee, that could apply to all others convicted of second-degree murder.

“The only issue that we’re appealing from trial is the sentence itself, so not the conviction,” Cozzens said. “So even on the theory that the state’s proved its case entirely and everything’s entirely true, that sentence is still excessive and doesn’t reflect the culpability of somebody convicted of felony murder.”

Kelly Callihan, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the case will be reviewed by the association’s appeals committee to determine next steps.

summary of the facts of the October 2014 killing written by the Allegheny County trial judge said Lee and another man, both armed and with their faces partially concealed, forced the home’s two adult residents to kneel while they yelled at victim Leonard Butler to give them money. One assailant used a stun gun.

One of them pistol-whipped the 44-year-old Butler in the face, took his watch and ran up the stairs, the judge said.

“The second male remained with the couple and when Butler began to struggle with him over the gun, a shot was fired killing Butler,” the judge wrote.

Investigators linked Lee to the crime because a rental vehicle in his name had been parked outside around the time of the killing, and because the other adult resident of the home identified him out of a photo lineup, saying Lee was not the shooter, the judge recounted.

Lee and codefendant Paul Durham were both convicted by a jury of second-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy.

In a June ruling, the Pennsylvania Superior Court cited decisions in previous, similar appeals as it turned down Lee’s claim that life-without-parole violates his constitutional rights.

But in a concurring opinion, Superior Court Judge Alice Beck Dubow urged the higher court to revisit the matter “in light of changes in related case law from other states and research and policy concerns regarding the criminal justice system.”

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