Inmates challenge parole restrictions
Six Pennsylvania inmates serving defacto life without parole sentences for crimes where they did not kill or intend to kill someone are challenging the state’s felony murder statutes as unconstitutional under the state’s ban on cruel punishment.
The six inmates represented by lawyers from the Abolitionist Law Center, the Amistad Law Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights are suing the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole after they were each denied a parole hearing in a form letter last month.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday asks the state’s Commonwealth Court to find the felony murder statute mandating a life sentence for these inmates while not allowing the parole board to hear requests for release unconstitutional. It also asks the court to order meaningful parole hearings for the six inmates and order the parole board to create a framework to review the parole requests for similarly sentenced inmates.
Nearly 1,100 of the close to 5,200 people serving defacto life without parole sentences in Pennsylvania did not kill or intend to kill someone, the lawyers said.
Attorney Bret Grote, co-founder of the Abolitionist Law Center, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit working to end mass incarceration, said the sentence of life without parole means death by incarceration.
“It is a prosecutors net that allows them to link the consequence of a criminal act to anyone who participates in that felony,” he said during a teleconference about the lawsuit. “It allows prosecutors to engage in overcharging and linking people to unintended consequences of their actions.”
Grote noted that the sentence is disproportionately levied against Black and Hispanic defendants. Almost 70% of Pennsylvania life without parole inmates are Black, when the state’s overall population is about 13% Black and the total inmate population is about 46% Black.
A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole said the board does not comment on open litigation. A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys’ Association said the members needed time to read the lawsuit before commenting.
The six inmates, Marie Scott, 67; Marsha Scaggs, 56; Normita Jackson, 43; Tyreem Rivers, 42; and brothers Reid Evans, 58, and Wyatt Evans, 57, have all served more than 20 years and in Scott’s case more than 47 years in prison. All were convicted of felony murder, which after 1974 included in the second-degree murder statutes, for crimes where they did not kill or intend to kill someone.
Scott was the lookout during a gas station robbery, where her underage co-defendant shot and killed the station attendant. That co-defendant was 16 at the time and has since had his sentence overturned and has been paroled.
Rivers and the Evans brothers were both involved in robberies where the person later died. In the Evans’ case, the man they robbed died of a heart attack several hours later, and in Rivers’ case, the woman whose purse he stole died of pneumonia she had contracted in the hospital while being treated for injuries she sustained during the robbery.
Jackson was convicted for her role in luring a man to her house, where her co-defendant shot and killed the man during a robbery. Scaggs testified she refused to kill a man during a drug deal after her co-defendant, who later shot and killed the man, believed he was an informant.
The lawyers argue that these inmates along with the 1,100 others convicted under the statute for their accomplice roles or for indirect deaths are less culpable, making the life without parole sentence cruel under the state’s constitution.
They say all of the inmates in the lawsuit have made efforts to better themselves by seeking addiction treatment, learning trades, starting support groups, earning college credits and serving as mentors and counselors to others during their combined 199 years in prison.
The only way for those inmates to receive a meaningful chance at rejoining society is if their sentences are commuted, something that the lawyers said has become increasingly rare with just eight inmates receiving commutations between 1995 and 2018 in Pennsylvania.
“The complete absence of any individualized assessment when it comes to imposing (death by incarceration) sentences in Pennsylvania is in stark contrast to the death penalty, to which the Supreme Court has compared the severity of life without parole sentences,” the lawyers wrote in the lawsuit. “Indeed, the Pennsylvania legislature has required individualized sentencing in nearly every sentencing scenario except (death by incarceration) sentences.”