Sentenced for life, people convicted of felony-murder sue for chance at release
In Pennsylvania, convictions for felony-murder are automatically punished with life in prison, without the possibility of parole.
This story originally appeared on WESA.
Marsha Scaggs admits she was part of a drug deal that turned deadly more than 30 years ago in Lawrence County, Pa.
The transaction grew tense when Scaggs and an accomplice suspected a prospective buyer of being a police informant. Scaggs, who is now 56 years old, said although her accomplice ordered her to shoot the buyer, she refused. So, Scaggs said, the accomplice fired the fatal shot instead.
Still, Scaggs was convicted of second-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison, for her role in the crime. Also called “felony-murder,” second-degree murder describes any felony that results in death, even if the offenders did not intend for death to occur or take a life themselves.
In Pennsylvania, convictions for felony-murder are automatically punished with life in prison, without the possibility of parole. Across the state, more than 1,100 people are serving life terms for the crime.
But in a lawsuit filed in state Commonwealth Court Wednesday, Scaggs and five other people incarcerated by the state are challenging that rule, calling it “an antiquated doctrine that allows prosecutors to cast a wide net and punish people for the unintended and tragic consequences of certain felonies.”
“You’re dealing with a sentencing determination that says, ‘This person will never be fit for reentry into society,’” sad Bret Grote, director of the Abolitionist Law Center, in an interview. “It is a policy decision that takes redemption off the table.”
The complaint says the plaintiffs have all been convicted of felony-murder, and each has served between 23 and 47 years in Pennsylvania prisons. Two of the plaintiffs, the filing asserts, were not directly involved in the altercations that led to victims’ deaths. In 1973, for example, 19-year-old Marie Scott served as a lookout for a gas-station robbery in which a station attendant was killed. Although Scott’s co-defendant actually committed the killing, his sentence was later vacated, and he was released on parole, because he was only 16 years old at the time of the crime.
Another plaintiff, Tyreem Rivers, was convicted of second-degree murder in 1997 after snatching an elderly woman’s purse. According to the lawsuit, the woman fell and had to be treated at a hospital, where she contracted pneumonia and died two weeks later.
With representation from Grote’s group along with Amistad Law Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights, the plaintiffs urge the court to strike down the law as cruel punishment that violates the state and federal constitutions. The attorneys argue that the Commonwealth Court can extend the logic that led the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 to invalidate automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles.
The nation’s top court held that the harshest punishments should rarely be imposed on children whose “immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences” make them less culpable than adults. Wednesday’s suit says people convicted of felony-murder similarly have “diminished culpability” and, therefore, should also be shielded from mandatory life without parole.
The complaint notes that in a 1982 ruling involving a man convicted of felony-murder, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on people who themselves did not kill or intend to kill someone. The high court, the complaint adds, has previously acknowledged that “sentences of life-without-parole are among the harshest punishments, akin to the death penalty in their severity and irrevocability, and thus deserving of enhanced constitutional scrutiny.”
The lawsuit also argues there would be little threat to public safety if courts were to release people convicted of second-degree murder who have already spent decades behind bars. The suit cites a string of studies that found that elderly parolees were extremely unlikely to reoffend, and it notes that the medical needs of an aging prison population account for a growing share of corrections budgets.
Similar arguments have gained traction in recent years among elected officials and even prosecutors. Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has consistently criticized the state’s felony-murder rule, while state Attorney General Josh Shapiro and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association have said they’re open to changing the law.
But there’s widespread opposition to such changes among those who have lost loved ones to second-degree murder, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate.
The General Assembly has declined to take the issue on. So Wednesday’s lawsuit urges the Commonwealth Court to intervene, and order the Pennsylvania Parole Board to develop a plan for reviewing the cases of those serving life terms.
Otherwise, the lawsuit says, those prisoners will continue “to live under the nightmarish specter of dying in prison no matter what they do, no matter decades of exemplary conduct, and without any individualized determination as to whether this harshest of sentences is warranted.”
The plaintiffs note that while they could legally seek release through commutation, for most of the past quarter-century, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons has granted relief no more than once annually.
The lawsuit notes, too, that racial minorities are overrepresented among Pennsylvanians serving life terms for felony-murder. Seventy percent of the group is Black, the suit says, even though just 12 percent of the state’s population is Black.
Grote, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said many of those incarcerated were driven to a life of crime at a young age, because they’ve experienced poverty and discrimination, as well as child abuse and substance use.
Felony-murder “is directed so systematically and overwhelmingly against Black bodies,” he said. “It has very real consequences [for] how communities of color are perceived by lawmakers, by the police, and by the broader public.”
Five of the six plaintiffs in Wednesday’s suit are Black, and they say if they are freed, they would help to interrupt racially biased patterns.
Normita Jackson, who has served 23 years of her life sentence, wrote in Wednesday’s complaint that if she is released, she will seek to help “young adults and children, by telling my story and allowing them to see and know that there is more to life than just drugs, fast money, and drinking.”
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