Commonwealth v. Batts

Juvenile Law Center, in collaboration with the Defender Association of Philadelphia and faculty members at Temple University Beasley School of Law, Boston University School of Law, and the University of San Francisco School of Law, filed an amicus brief on behalf of Qu’eed Batts, who was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for a homicide he committed at the age of 14. In Pennsylvania, LWOP is a mandatory sentence for anyone convicted of first or second degree murder.

The brief argued that the life without parole sentence violates the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions as well as international law. In Graham v. Florida, the United States Supreme Court held that a sentence of life without parole imposed on a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense was unconstitutional, grounding its decision in developmental and scientific research demonstrating that juveniles possess a greater capacity for rehabilitation, change, and growth than adults, and reasoning that the sentence therefore served no legitimate penological purpose when applied to juveniles. Juvenile Law Center’s brief argued that Graham applied in this case as well, since the reasoning about the differences between juveniles and adults apply regardless of the type of crime at issue.

The brief also argued that the sentence is not in conformity with national and international sentencing trends, as only three other states mandate LWOP sentences for juveniles under the age of fourteen convicted of homicide and the United States is alone in the world in imposing life without parole sentences on juveniles.

Juvenile Law Center argued the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court December 1, 2010.

On December 6, 2011, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered a hold placed on the case pending disposition by the U.S. Supreme Court of Miller v. Alabama. Upon review of the Miller decision, which banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, the Court found that supplemental briefing was warranted to resolve the issues upon which it granted allowance of appeal. Accordingly, Juvenile Law Center and the other parties were ordered to submit supplemental briefing on the following issues:

  1. What is, as a general matter, the appropriate remedy on direct appeal in Pennsylvania for a defendant who was sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a murder committed when the defendant was under the age of eighteen?
  2. To what relief, if any, is appellant entitled from the mandatory term of life imprisonment without parole for the murder he committed when he was fourteen years old? 

The brief argued that, based on Miller, Pennsylvania's statutory scheme of sentencing any juvenile convicted of first or second degree murder to life without parole is now unconstitutional, and that Mr. Batts' sentence must be vacated and a new constitutional sentence imposed. The brief argued that the only constitutional statutory sentence available is the sentence for lesser included offenses, and that the Court should hold that the appropriate remedy for juveniles convicted of first degree murder is to impose the current statutory sentence for the lesser included offense of third degree murder.

Deputy Director Marsha Levick argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on behalf of Mr. Batts on September 12, 2012.

On March 26, 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that Mr. Batts was entitled to a resentencing hearing. At that resentencing, Mr. Batts can receive a sentence of life with parole or life without parole. The Court gave the trial court the discretion to determine Mr. Batts' minimum sentence (or parole eligibility), emphasizing that trial courts must consider "appropriate-age related factors." The Court relied in part on the United States Supreme Court's decision in Miller

Following remand, on May 2, 2014, the Northampton County Court of Common Please sentenced Mr. Batts to life without the possibility of parole for a second time. On June 10, 2014, Mr. Batts appealed his resentencing to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.

On December 26, 2014, Juvenile Law Center filed an amicus brief supporting Mr. Batts’ appeal. Our brief argued that resentencing Mr. Batts to life without parole was a violation of Miller.  We argued that Miller adopts a presumption against imposing juvenile life without parole sentences and a presumption of immaturity for juvenile offenders. Because the Pennsylvania courts have not provided guidelines to ensure that juvenile life without parole are imposed only upon the rare juvenile offender who could be classified as irreparably corrupt, our brief argued that the imposition of life without parole was unconstitutionally arbitrary.  Finally, our brief argued that evidence of mitigating circumstances in Mr. Batts’ case demonstrated that Mr. Batts’ life without parole sentence was unconstitutionally disproportionate and violated Miller.

After the Superior Court affirmed Mr. Batts' sentence in 2015, Juvenile Law Center  joined the Defender Association of Philadelphia and attorneys Lauer, Fulmer, and Ward as co-counsel for Mr. Batts in his appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Our brief urged the Court to establish guidelines to ensure that life without parole sentences are not imposed in a manner that is unconstitutionally arbitrary and capricious. We further argued that Mr. Batts' resentencing to life (and death) in prison was unconstitutional because it provided him with fewer procedural safeguards than an adult facing capital punishment.

On December 7, 2016 Juvenile Law Center’s Deputy Director and Chief Counsel, Marsha Levick, argued on behalf of Mr. Batts before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

A unanimous Pennsylvania Supreme Court (Justice Mundy did not participate) held that Miller and Montgomery establish a presumption against the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders. The Court further held that the Commonwealth (1) must give reasonable notice of its intention to seek a sentence of life without parole, and (2) the Commonwealth bears the burden of establishing, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is permanently incorrigible and thus is unable to be rehabilitated. “Consistent with the mandate of Miller and Montgomery, for a life-without-parole sentence to be constitutionally valid, the sentencing court must find that the juvenile offender is permanently incorrigible and that rehabilitation would be impossible.”

In 2022, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Commonwealth v. Felder that its decision in this case was abrogated by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Jones v. Mississippi. The Court stated that “we are left with no choice but to dissolve those procedural requirements in Batts II that are not constitutionally required — namely, the presumption against sentencing a juvenile homicide offender to life without parole, and the imposition on the Commonwealth of the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the juvenile is permanently incorrigible.”

Further Reading

"Mercy or a mistake?: Pa. Supreme Court all but bans life prison terms for juvenile murderers," Matt Miller, Penn Live, 6/27/2017

"Pennsylvania Supreme Court throws out life without parole sentence for juvenile," Riley Yaes, Allentown Morning Call, 6/26/2017

"Easton teen killer's fate to be decided by Northampton County Judge Koury," Riley Yates, Allentown Morning Call, 4/2/13

Blog post: Juvenile Law Center Responds to Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Ruling in Commonwealth v. Batts, 3/26/13

"Supreme Court: Juvenile killer to get new sentencing," Riley Yates, Allentown Morning Call, 3/26/13

"14-year-old convicted of Easton murder should only face 40 years in prison, attorneys argue," Tom Shortell, The Express-Times, 7/27/12

"Easton teen's life sentence for gang killing to be argued," JD Malone, Allentown Morning Call, 7/10/12

"Northampton County prosecutors seeking life sentence for Qu'eed Batts, despite high court ruling," Andrew George, The Express-Times, 7/10/12