Commonwealth v. Cobbs
In Allegheny County, James Cobbs received a mandatory life without parole sentence under the felony murder rule for his participation in a robbery in 1970 when he was 17 years old. At the age of 25, while serving his predicate life sentence, James was charged in Montgomery County with assaulting another prisoner and sentenced to a second mandatory life without parole sentence under Pennsylvania's Assault by Life Prisoner statute. In 2017, in accordance with Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana which held mandatory life sentences unconstitutional as applied to juveniles, Allegheny County resentenced James to a term of 40 years to life which would have made James immediately parole eligible. However, Montgomery County upheld James's life sentence for the Assault by Life Prisoner conviction.
Juvenile Law Center joined the Montgomery County Office of the Public Defender as co-counsel for James in his appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania challenging James's Assault by Life Prisoner sentence as unconstitutional because the underlying predicate sentence was unconstitutional.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld James's Assault by Life Prisoner sentence conceding that "[w]e recognize that it appears anomalous that Appellant can be released on parole from a murder sentence and is subject to life imprisonment without parole for a non-life-threatening assault."
Juvenile Law Center and Montgomery County Office of the Public Defender filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on behalf of James urging the court to grant review because the Superior Court's holding below conflicts with Pennsylvania and United States Supreme Court precedent and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should ensure that courts are applying the Assault by Life Prisoner statute constitutionally. We further urged the court to grant review to recognize that James's Assault by Life Prisoner conviction and sentence are unconstitutional because his predicate life sentence was void ab intio.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the Petition for Allowance of Appeal.
Juvenile Law Center and Montgomery County Office of the Public Defender filed a brief urging the Court to vacate James’s conviction for Assault by Life Prisoner and resulting mandatory life without parole sentence. We argued that, because James was serving an unconstitutional life sentence at the time of the assault, he was not a “life prisoner”, and therefore his “Assault by Life Prisoner” conviction is invalid. We further argued that the Court should overturn the Superior Court’s ruling to ensure that Pennsylvania courts adhere to U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated James’s Assault by Life Prisoner conviction and sentence, holding that they are invalidated by Miller and Montgomery, and that his current sentence of 40 years to life does not render him a life prisoner for the purposes of the Assault by Life Prisoner statute.