Commonwealth v. Phillips

In 2006, Juvenile Law Center filed an amicus brief in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania in a case involving whether a teenager's sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP) must be struck down as violative of the federal and Pennsylvania Constitutions' bar against cruel punishments. Mr. Phillips was convicted in 1988 of second degree (felony) murder and sentenced to life without parole.  At the time of the crime, Mr. Phillips was seventeen years old. He was involved in an unarmed “snatch-and-grab” robbery where the victim died after medical complications. In a per curiam opinion the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed Mr. Phillips sentence.  

In 2010, Juvenile Law Center, in collaboration with the Defender Association of Philadelphia and faculty at Temple University Beasley School of Law, Boston University School of Law, and the University of San Francisco School of Law, filed a petition for post-conviction relief in the Montgomery County (Pennsylvania) Court of Common Pleas, challenging Mr. Phillips’ life without parole sentence.

We argued that life without parole sentences imposed on juveniles convicted of felony murder violate the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions as well as international law. In Graham v. Florida, the United States Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a life without parole sentence imposed upon a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense. The Court held the sentence unconstitutional, grounding its decision in developmental and scientific research demonstrating that juveniles possess a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults, and reasoning that the sentence therefore served no legitimate penological purpose when applied to juveniles. Graham emphasized that such a sentence was unconstitutional when applied to juveniles who did not kill or intend to kill. Because there was no finding in this case that Mr. Phillips killed or intended to kill—he was convicted based on his involvement in an underlying felony—the brief argues that his sentence is unconstitutional pursuant to Graham.

The trial court denied Mr. Phillips’ petition for post-conviction relief, as did the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Juvenile Law Center filed a petition for review in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The petition was stayed pending Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016) which was before the U.S. Supreme Court, to resolve the issue of whether or not Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012) is retroactive.

Following the recent decision in Montgomery, holding Miller retroactive, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Mr. Phillips’ petition for appeal, vacated the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s order, and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with Montgomery. The Court also granted Mr. Phillips permission to amend his post-conviction petition.

Mr. Phillips was resenteced to 30 years to life and made parole eligible immediately.