Juvenile Law Center

Aaron

Aaron Phillips has been in prison for nearly three decades for a crime he committed when he was 17 years-old. Although Aaron has matured and changed in the time since his adolescent offense, he can never be released from prison because he is serving a sentence of life without the opportunity for parole.

At 17, I witnessed what no adult - much less a child - should experience. There was a level of violence and a degree of brutality that defy description.

As a teenager, Aaron tagged along with older youth hoping to be part of the “in” crowd. One day, he and a 22 year-old grabbed an elderly man’s wallet and pushed him down. The man, though injured, was up and walking after the incident. Tragically, the man died 18 days later from cardiac arrest after surgery to repair his fractured hip and a separate intestinal surgery.

Aaron was tried as an adult and convicted of “felony murder,” which means that the victim was killed during the course of a felony – in this case, armed robbery. Aaron was sentenced to life without parole under Pennsylvania law, which required that sentence for anyone convicted of felony murder, no matter the offender’s age or the extent of the offender’s involvement. By contrast, Aaron’s older co-defendant accepted a plea deal and was released from prison more two decades ago.

Aaron’s entry into the prison system in 1986 was traumatic. “At 17, I witnessed what no adult – much less a child – should experience,” Aaron says. “There was a level of violence and a degree of brutality that defy description.” Aaron faced a bleak future. “There’s a profound sense of hopelessness and despair as you watch your life slowly withering away year after year, decade after decade with no end to the suffering in sight,” he says.

Against all odds, Aaron did not give in to this despair. “Constantly, I strive to motivate myself and others to recognize, embrace, and fully appreciate the gift of life; to do whatever you can to contribute to the betterment of the human condition,” Aaron says. In his decades in prison, Aaron has touched many lives. His fellow inmates describe Aaron as a “big brother” who helps them make better decisions in their lives.

Despite having entered the justice system as a teenager, Aaron could not access academic, vocational or rehabilitative services because such services are reserved for inmates who will be released. So, Aaron educated himself. He structured a curriculum with materials he received from other inmates. Aaron has co-facilitated a citizenship course, developed and facilitated a character building workshop, and worked as a paralegal for a law clinic that provided legal services to illiterate and non-English speaking inmates.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court then held that Aaron, and the more than 500 other individuals in the state serving juvenile life without parole sentences, are not entitled to new sentencing hearings, finding that the Miller decision is not retroactive. Other state courts have held that Miller is retroactive. Juvenile Law Center is working in Pennsylvania and around the country to ensure that Aaron and every individual serving a mandatory life without parole sentence has the opportunity to demonstrate to a court why they are capable of redemption.

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