In Philadelphia, there are 300 men and women who were children when they were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. A January decision by the U.S. Supreme Court offered an opportunity at resentencing, but for months the details of that decision have been in the hands of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. Finally, on Friday, June 3, Williams outlined his vision for the future—a vision that many criminal justice reform proponents believe will put Philadelphia on the front lines of major sentencing reform.
It was late in the afternoon on Friday when Williams’s office released a statement with more details on his plans for resentencing these defendants. At first glance, the statement itself was disappointing in its absence of conviction, including virtually no mention of principles, no promises, no overall goals. Only one sentence hinted at just how important the issue is: "Other states and counties across the U.S. are looking to Philadelphia to see what we are doing."
When criminal justice reform advocates read the statement on Friday evening, many felt disappointed—but not exactly surprised. The hope was that District Attorney Seth Williams would promise to give these 300 people the possibility of parole. The hope was that he would pledge to stop seeking sentences of life without parole for juveniles in the future. The hope was that he would lead the way on juvenile sentencing reform, take a strong stance, make some guarantees. Instead, it was all process and no promise.
Advocates immediately began sending frantic emails about next steps and Plan B, but most of them had missed something critical. Williams had sent a few tweets immediately after releasing the statement, outlining the details of the resentencing process. While a few of them were equally technical, the last one was the most important.
Later that evening he repeated himself in a tweet to Rob Smith, senior research director of Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute. “[W]e will have hearings for all 300 chronologically they will get new sentences that will allow for the possibility of parole,” he said.
Proponents of criminal justice reform looked at Williams’ twitter feed in disbelief. It seemed as if he was promising publicly that he would not ask for life without parole sentences for any of those 300 defendants. Was that right? Could this be real?
It seems that it was and it is. On Friday evening in the most low-key way possible, Seth Williams gave hope to 300 men and women who were sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed as children. And yesterday, he took it even further. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Williams [said] he'll be seeking sentences of between 20 and 35 years to life for all cases, depending on the age and nature of the crime.
"It's my goal to give all of these individuals some light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "As long as I'm the D.A., we will not be asking for cases going forward for life without the possibility of parole for people under the age of 18 because of the same exact reasons articulated by the Supreme Court in Miller."
After months of confusion, Williams seems to have ended past and present life without parole sentences for juveniles in Philadelphia. Although a DA’s prosecutorial discretion only exists as long as the person is in office, Williams’ decision will still make a significant impact, especially for those 300 defendants sentenced before 2012.
Williams is taking a brave and critically important step. With this decision, he becomes a leader in the national movement around juvenile justice and sentencing reform, helping to set a new standard nationwide.
When District Attorney Seth Williams was elected in 2009, he was lauded in liberal circles as an agent of change and a man of compassion. As the first black district attorney in the country's seventh biggest—and third blackest—city, many thought Williams would be the country's most progressive prosecutor.
The past seven years have played out differently than those people expected. Williams has been a controversial figure who has often worked to maintain the status quo. His decisions, often seen as antiquated and harmful, have been covered here many times. Williams has disappointed advocates for criminal justice reform repeatedly, on issues ranging from the death penalty to prosecutorial misconduct to sentencing reform.
That's one reason why this decision from Williams is so exciting. But its not only about the "who,” but the "where:” Of all the counties in all the states in America, the issue of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) is most important in Philadelphia.
Some technical legal history first: In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to mandatory life without parole (LWOP). In other words, if a juvenile commits a crime which results in someone's death, he may still be sentenced to LWOP, but that sentence must not be mandatory under the law.
The ruling in Miller was a notable step forward for juvenile criminal justice reform. Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Institute whose advocacy against LWOP and the death penalty has turned him into somewhat of a celebrity, argued the case in front of the Supreme Court. He called the court's ruling "a significant step forward" and stated that "[t]he Court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.”
But while Miller was important, it wasn't enough. After all, juveniles could still be sentenced to life without parole, as long as the sentence wasn't required by law. And the Court didn't explicitly make the Miller ruling retroactive, which meant that all the people who had been sentenced to JLWOP before 2012 were stuck with the same sentence.
Then, in January 2016, the Court made another critical ruling regarding juvenile sentencing in a case called Montgomery v. Louisiana. Among other things, Montgomery ruled that Miller applied retroactively. All those prisoners who were mandatorily sentenced to life without parole as juveniles before 2012? They would now get an opportunity to be resentenced.
And, again, nowhere was this ruling more powerful than in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania loves JLWOP, and has "imposed the highest percent of JLWOP sentences of any state," according to a recent report by the Fair Punishment Project. When Miller was decided, there were around 2,600 people nationwide serving LWOP sentences for crimes committed as a juvenile. A solid 2,000 of those were mandatorily sentenced. And about 25 percent of those alone were in Pennsylvania.
Even in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia County stands out as particularly bad, with the highest number of JLWOP convictions in the state. The county alone is responsible for 300 people currently serving mandatory JLWOP cases. A recent report from the Fair Punishment Project found that, "Philadelphia County is home to .5% of all Americans, but at least 9% of all juveniles sentenced to life without parole."
This is why advocates, lawyers, and journalists have been particularly focused on Williams. Since Montgomery was decided in January, people have been waiting to see what he would do. And over the past month, his decision was thought to be imminent due to the constraints of state and local budget timelines. As the days passed, the pressure increased.
I was a source of some of that pressure. A few weeks ago Williams and I got into a back-and-forth on Twitter after he responded to some of my tweets about JLWOP in Philadelphia. Twitter is a limited medium by definition, and in-depth communication is close to impossible. William's frustration was palpable—it was clear that he had more to say than he could get across in a few tweets.
Still, it was surprising that he wanted to continue the conversation. He was proactive about following up, and we had the chance to talk briefly over the phone last month. Williams is an effusive, personable man, making friendly jokes as soon as we got on the phone. In many ways he comes off as a politician, but he's also disarmingly earnest, and there was a very real sense he was truly grappling with some of the bigger issues that Montgomery posed: Can anyone be redeemed? How much punishment is too much punishment? How are children different?
He described the upcoming process in detail, gave me his expected timeline (three years to resentence all 300 cases), and listed all the other people involved in the process. Williams said he had been working with the Department of Corrections and the public defender's office, and he told me that Chesley Lightsey, an assistant DA in his homicide unit, would be representing the state in the resentencing process. According to the Inquirer, Williams's office will have an internal team assigned to the cases, and will include Lightsey, a victim's advocate, a detective, and a clerk.
When pressed about whether he could promise to not request life without parole sentences in the 300 resentencing hearings, Williams was openly sympathetic but remained somewhat noncommittal.
"I would like to give everyone some light at the end of the tunnel," he said when asked. But he also noted that there were hundreds of cases, and tons of information and records to analyze for each defendant.
"There could be a situation where someone committed a horrific triple homicide and they've been, for lack of a better word, evil since they have been in prison," he said. "I would hope there's a way we could fashion a way for those people to see the parole board. I'm still grappling with that, about whether or not those people have any redeeming chance."
Williams noted that he understood the Court's reasoning in Miller and Montgomery, and believed that children have reduced capacities which require consideration. He also noted that he expected that, of the 300 defendants, 100 or so would reasonably be candidates for release in the near future.
"There are likely going to be those defendants that, like Saul on the road to Damascus, have seen the light, so to speak," said Williams. "This may be the case in close to a third of cases."
But, he wondered, "How do I say to a mother whose child was raped, sodomized, and bludgeoned to death, 'Well [the offender] was 17-and-a-half'?"
By letting these offenders in front of the parole board, Williams isn’t guaranteeing their release. At the parole board hearing, victims and their families will also get the chance to speak up. All Williams is doing is allowing those defendants an opportunity to present their case.
All of these 300 cases involve the death of a victim, but even within that category there exists a wide range of culpability and intent. That’s primarily because, In pre-Miller Philadelphia, a felony murder conviction meant life without parole, even for juvenile offenders.
Felony murder, increasingly controversial, is a "legal rule that expands the definition of murder" and still applies in most U.S. jurisdictions. Felony murder applies in two primary situations. First, if the defendant kills someone during the commission of another violent felony, even if it was an accident. For example, imagine the defendant robs a store and pulls a gun out on the cashier, who is so terrified that he suffers a heart attack. In many jurisdictions, that would qualify as felony murder.
Secondly—and more controversially—felony murder can also make co-participants in a violent felony responsible for the actions of each other, whether or not those actions were planned in advance. So, let's say two people decide to rob a store, and Person A agrees to drive the getaway car. If Person B shoots the cashier—or, again, if the cashier dies from a heart attack—Person A could be guilty of felony murder. Even if he didn't know that Person B had a gun, or never even saw the cashier.
Felony murder can mean outrageous consequences, especially in cases similar to the latter example above. Take the story of Joe Ligon. Fair Punishment Project reports:
In 1953, Joe Ligon, then 15 years old, was arrested along with five other youths in connection with the deaths of two other teens in a large brawl. Ligon is developmentally disabled and did not actually stab the victims who died. Today, all four of the other defendants have been released; only Ligon remains locked up. He is now a 78-year-old man, and with more than six decades of incarceration, he is the longest-serving juvenile lifer in the state.
Ligon hasn’t seen the outside of a prison since he was 15 years old. Now, thanks to Williams, he may get his chance.
Resentencing began last Friday and is expected to continue for at least the next three years. Without exception, each of these 300 incarcerated defendants must go in front of a judge again to be resentenced. Williams said he expected that one judge from the Court of Common Pleas—the state's district court equivalent—would handle all of these cases. The DA’s office will work with the public defender and the Department of Corrections as they process all 300.
Williams’ brief statements imply his office will ensure that every defendant is resentenced to terms of years. For example, they may get a new sentence of 25 years to life, with credit for time served. If the defendant has already served 25 years, they will see a parole board immediately. Or, in many cases, the sentence may be time served to life. In such cases, they will also get the opportunity to go in front of the parole board as soon as possible.
There are still concerns. It's not clear just what role prison records will play in resentencing, especially in instances where a prison infraction was not adjudicated. And many reform proponents are hopeful that, in some cases, a defendant may be able to avoid the parole board altogether. A defendant like Ligon, for example, could get resentenced to time served—therefore allowing him to be released immediately. But Williams’ tweet seems to indicate that every defendant will go in front of the parole board following resentencing hearings. (This article will be updated pending clarification.)
But for now, this is a huge step forward.
So far, two men have been resentenced in Philadelphia. From the Inquirer:
One is Henry Smolarski, 53, who was 17 and a student at St. Joe's Prep in 1979 when he stabbed Neal Sherman, a Temple freshman, on South Street. He later claimed he thought Sherman was a man who had earlier robbed and assaulted him.
Burton Rose, Smolarski's lawyer, said his client had never had a misconduct in 37 years in prison.
At the hearing, 20 of Smolarski's family and friends, including men who had been locked up with him, wept as he apologized to Sherman's brother, Ralph, and hugged as the judge imposed his new sentence.
Ralph Sherman was moved after learning of Smolarski's remorse and reading letters from the fathers of other inmates, who called Smolarski a role model.
Also resentenced was Tyrone Jones, 59, convicted of the gang-related execution of 17-year-old Henry Harrison in North Philadelphia in 1973; he's been claiming his innocence in court for years. His conviction was based on a confession that conflicted with key facts of the crime.
But his lawyers focused on what Jones has done since: He earned his GED in prison, became a skilled electrician, and has been a "model inmate." He remained close with his sisters, including Ruth Margo Gee, of Jackson, N.C., who plans to take him in if he's released.
Harrison's sister, Edith Harris, did not oppose the resentencing, according to [Lightsey].
Smolarski, Jones, and hundreds of others believed that they would die in prison. Thanks to Williams’ courageous decision, they finally have a chance.