Commonwealth v. Qu’eed Batts, No. 45 MAP 2016, 2017 WL 2735411 (Pa. June 26, 2017) – In 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court revisited the case of a juvenile whose LWOP sentence it had upheld in 2013 (Batts I, described below). Batts (age 14 at time of crimes) had been convicted of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and aggravated assault. He was sentenced to mandatory LWOP (murder) and 6 to 20 years (attempted murder), to be served concurrently. Miller was decided during the pendency of defendant’s direct appeals. On appeal, the court found that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder prior to Miller could be subjected to LWOP (and Batts was, in fact, resentenced to LWOP on the first-degree murder count). On appeal of the superior court’s affirmation of the sentence, the Supreme Court re-examined the Commonwealth’s sentencing procedures in the wake of Montgomery. It concluded that Pennsylvania’s failure to implement a sentencing scheme in compliance with Miller and Montgomery warranted that the court “exercise our constitutional power of judicial administration to devise a procedure” to implement the decisions in the state. It explained:
“More than a year has passed since the Montgomery decision, and it has been five years since the High Court decided Miller. The General Assembly has not taken any appreciable steps to create a separate sentencing statute or to revise the existing law so that it applies to juveniles convicted of first-degree murder prior to Miller. In the meantime, several hundred individuals remain in Pennsylvania prisons serving illegal life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles. . . . It is abundantly clear that the exercise of our constitutional authority is required to set forth the manner in which resentencing will proceed in the courts of this Commonwealth.”
Citing Roper, Graham, Miller, and Montgomery—which the court described as “unambiguous” in their mandate—the Pennsylvania Supreme Court went on to conclude that “for a sentence of life without parole to be proportional as applied to a juvenile murderer, the sentencing court must first find, based on competent evidence, that the offender is entirely unable to change. It must find that there is no possibility that the offender could be rehabilitated at any point later in his life, no matter how much time he spends in prison and regardless of the amount of therapeutic interventions he receives, and that the crime committed reflects the juvenile’s true and unchangeable personality and character. Under Miller and Montgomery, a sentencing court has no discretion to sentence a juvenile offender to life without parole unless it finds that the defendant is one of the ‘rare’ and ‘uncommon’ children possessing the above-stated characteristics, permitting its imposition. A sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for a murder committed when the defendant was a juvenile is otherwise disproportionate and unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.”
The court outlined procedures to ensure that such sentences would in fact be reserved for the most exceptional cases: a formal presumption against LWOP such that, for a juvenile to be sentenced to LWOP, the government must prove his incorrigibility beyond a reasonable doubt. Rejecting the government’s suggestion that an offender must prove his own capacity for rehabilitation, the court held that any suggestion of placing the burden on the juvenile offender “is belied by the central premise of Roper, Graham, Miller, and Montgomery—that as a matter of law, juveniles are categorically less culpable than adults.” It emphasized, again, that placing a presumption against LWOP, with the burden on the prosecution, was necessary to ensure that the sentence was only imposed on the “rarest of the rare” juvenile defendant: “Pursuant to our consideration of the attendant due process concerns and the definitive language used by the Supreme Court, we conclude that to overcome the presumption against the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender, the Commonwealth must prove that the juvenile is constitutionally eligible for the sentence beyond a reasonable doubt. In an effort to satisfy this burden, the Commonwealth may present evidence relating to the factors announced in Miller and the factors appearing in section 1102.1(d).”
However, the court declined to conclude that an incorrigibility finding must be made by a jury rather than a judge, reading Miller and Montgomery to permit a judge to make the finding, and resisting analogies to capital sentencing. The court concluded: “The procedures we have established provide juveniles facing a potential sentence of life without parole with heightened due process protections. It is our intention that adherence to these procedures will curtail the imposition of illegal sentences of life without parole by sentencing courts. We expect that the proper employment of these procedures will result in courts sentencing juveniles to life without parole in only the rarest of circumstances, as contemplated and prescribed by the United States Supreme Court.” Reversed and remanded for resentencing (which, the court noted, would be Batts’ third sentencing proceeding).