Lawsuit Challenging Death By Incarceration Goes Before Pennsylvania Supreme Court

“This case is on behalf of Black elders and all of those who have been denied redemption,” said Samah Sisay
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Photos: Amistad Law Project\YouTube

Pittsburgh, PA ‒ Wednesday, a lawsuit brought by people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences, commonly known as Life Without Parole, took their case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, they seek an end to the ban on parole for those serving life sentences for participating in a felony that led to a death, even if they played no direct role in the death and did not intend or anticipate it.

“People change. After decades of incarceration, society should allow people the opportunity to demonstrate that they are not the same person who harmed their community so many years ago,” said Kris Henderson of Amistad Law Project. “Pennsylvania is uniquely cruel in denying a second chance to people who neither took a life or intended to. We urge the court to fix this injustice.”

The case concerns people convicted of so-called felony murder. Versions of the rule, which exists in 44 states, hold liable for murder a person who participates in a felony that leads to a death, even if the person played no direct role in the death and did not intend or anticipate it. The application of the rule varies from state to state.

In Pennsylvania, people found guilty are automatically sentenced to life, and a separate provision of state law prohibits parole for anyone serving a life sentence. Critics say Pennsylvania’s total ban on parole for these crimes makes it unique among the states in the harshness with which it treats felony-murder convictions.

Scott v. Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, filed in July 2020, is the first case of its kind in the country. It argues that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for those who did not kill or intend to kill serve no legitimate governmental interest and are illegally cruel under the Pennsylvania constitution. The plaintiffs belong to a movement of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated advocates and family members in using the term Death By Incarceration, which, they say, is the true impact of these sentences.

In 2021, a lower court ruled that the plaintiffs – and the more than 1,100 others in Pennsylvania serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences for felony murder – are not permitted to challenge the lifetime prohibition on parole, citing lack of jurisdiction. In today’s oral argument, their attorneys urged the court to overturn this decision and allow the case to proceed.

All four plaintiffs were convicted in their late teens or early 20s. Though none directly caused or intended to cause the death of the victim, they have spent between 24 and 48 years in prison ‒ the majority of their lives.

Tyreem Rivers was 18 when he grabbed the purse of an elderly woman who fell as a result. She was hospitalized and died two weeks later from pneumonia she had contracted in the hospital. Tyreem is now in his forties.

Marie Scott was 19 when she robbed a gas station and her accomplice killed the attendant. She is now in her late sixties.

Normita Jackson, now in her forties, was also 19 when she participated in a robbery where her co-defendant committed homicide.

Marsha Scaggs, in her late fifties, was 23 when she was prosecuted after an altercation resulted in her co-defendant killing the victim in her case.

None of them committed the killings, nor did they have any intention for them to happen. Unless their legal challenge succeeds or the law is otherwise changed, these four people and the more than 1,100 others will almost certainly die in prison.

Two of the original plaintiffs, brothers Wyatt and Reid Evans, had their sentences commuted after serving 37 years.

Wyatt and Reid Evans

“Felony murder’s automatic life-without-parole is a death sentence, one that disproportionately impacts youth, women, and Black and Brown people. Death by incarceration serves no legitimate public safety interest – only the interests of racist, state-sanctioned retribution and punishment,” said the Abolitionist Law Center in a statement. “It’s time for the over 1,000 people sentenced to DBI under felony murder to be given the opportunity to be reviewed for parole – and to finally come home to their friends and families after decades in cages.”

Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme both reflects and exacerbates the racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice and penal systems. While only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is Black, about 70 percent of people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences for felony murder are Black. Overall in the state, Black people are sentenced to Death By Incarceration at a rate 18 times higher, and Latinx people at a rate five times higher, than white people.

“This case is on behalf of Black elders and all of those who have been denied redemption,” said Samah Sisay, attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Through its mandatory sentencing scheme and an inability to seek parole, Pennsylvania has disproportionately and unconstitutionally denied rehabilitation for people of color and we are asking the court to right this grave error.”

A number of legal organizations have filed or joined amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit: The MacArthur Justice Center, The Sentencing Project, the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Berkeley School of Law, the Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic at Drexel School of Law, Seton Hall Center for Social Justice Eighth Amendment Scholars, and the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

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