Appeal Likely in Juvenile Lifer Ruling

Five of seven judges seats in the Supreme Court chamber in the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.
Five of seven judges seats in the Supreme Court chamber in the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.

From The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (MCT)

Joseph Aulisio killed two children. Christian Kenyon helped murder a rival gang member.

Both of the Lackawanna County men were juveniles when they committed their crimes and were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Now two recent rulings by the state Supreme Court have given Kenyon hope he could someday receive a lesser sentence, while Aulisio is destined to die in prison.

Their cases illustrate what advocates for juvenile justice say is the blatant unfairness of a state Supreme Court ruling issued Wednesday that will preclude hundreds of juvenile lifers from seeking new sentencing hearings.

Calling the ruling "appallingly unjust," attorneys with the Juvenile Law Center and Defender Association of Philadelphia say they will likely appeal the decision, issued in the case of Ian Cunningham of Philadelphia, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling relates to the landmark 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller vs. Alabama that declared mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional. The court found such sentences violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 4-3 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling cannot be applied retroactively to cases in which a juvenile had exhausted all their appeals before the high court decision was issued. The ruling is at odds with a separate ruling the state Supreme court issued in the case of Qu'eed Batts, which said the Miller case is applicable to cases where a juvenile's appeals are still pending.

In Lackawanna County, Kenyon, a Scranton street gang member who at age 17 was convicted of helping two other men kill Allen Fernandez in 2009, was recently granted a new sentencing hearing based on the Batts ruling. No hearing has been set yet as he has an appeal pending of his conviction before the state Supreme Court, said his attorney, Robert Buttner.

Aulisio of Old Forge, who was 15 at the time of his crime, will not get that chance, however. He was convicted of killing 8-year-old Cheryl Ziemba and her 4-year-old brother, Christopher, in 1981 and exhausted his appeals long before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Miller case.

Bradley Bridge, an attorney with the Defender's Association, said the court's latest ruling in the Cunningham case is "exceedingly unfair," as it violates a basic tenant of justice that calls for equal treatment of all defendants.

Buttner said he's also troubled by the court's ruling in the Cunningham case, even though it does not affect his client. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling was based on the premise that juvenile's mind is not fully developed, therefore a judge must be given latitude to consider each juvenile's situation, including background, upbringing and likelihood of being rehabilitated, in deciding whether to sentence a juvenile to life.

"Are we saying children's immaturity and development is less now than it was in the 1980s and 1990s?" Buttner asked.

Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association, said the focus should be on the question of fairness to victims and their families, who deserve to have some finality to their cases.

"There is always a balancing that goes on with the criminal justice system," Long said. "The survivors of murder victims have had to deal with the loss of a loved one taken from them by a juvenile murderer. Would it be fair to have those cases reopened for another sentencing?"

The ruling affects nearly 500 inmates statewide, according to Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center.


©2013 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

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