JOHNSTOWN - Four state prison inmates from Blair and Clearfield counties serving life without parole for homicides committed when they were juveniles have filed federal petitions in the past few days asking that their sentences be vacated because of a year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
While the four have been behind bars for many years, they are still young.
Each has received hope that parole might be in their futures because of a ruling a year ago by the U.S. Supreme Court that concluded mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The ruling in Miller v. Alabama has raised questions, and both the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals are attempting to clarify the ruling, thus providing guidance to county courts as to what to do next.
One of the questions is whether the U.S. Supreme Court decision even applies to murder cases involving juveniles from the 1980s and 1990s.
If the decision is applicable to older cases, that raises the questions of whether new sentencing hearings must be held and what questions must be resolved during those hearings.
The uncertainty of where to go next is reflected in the petitions filed by the inmates.
Federal Public Defender Lisa B. Freeland and Assistant Public Defender Akin Adepoju of the Federal Public Defender's Office in Pittsburgh have filed a petition on behalf of James Franklin Rodgers of Blair County, who was 17 years old when he killed 72-year-old Pasquale Lascoli of Altoona by stabbing him between 70 and 80 times. The crime occurred in 1988, and Rodgers was given a mandatory life without parole sentence on April 3, 1991.
Rodgers' lawyers argue that the Supreme Court's decision should be retroactive, stating, "It is plain that Mr. Rodger's sentence violates the 8th Amendment."
The public defenders want Rodgers to be resentenced because children are "constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing."
The Rodgers petition was filed Tuesday.
Rodgers is now 42 years old and is serving his time at the State Correctional Institution at Somerset.
The three other inmates who filed petitions for review are from Clearfield County.
They include Christopher L. Weatherill, 30, who is in SCI Rockview, Andrew J. Callahan, 30, at SCI Benner Township and Jessica N. Holtmeyer, 31, at SCI Muncy.
The Clearfield County inmates all filed petitions on their own.
Weatherill was convicted of second-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery after he and an associate in 1989 forcibly took a woman from a mall, drove her to a wooded area, robbed her and then stabbed her to death. The pair fled to Arizona.
Each blamed the other for the actual killing.
Weatherill was found guilty of both second- and third-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
He makes no suggestions as to what should occur next, noting only he is waiting for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to decide a case titled the Commonwealth v. Cunningham, which is supposed to provide recommendations on how to apply the federal decision at the state level.
Callahan, convicted three times of killing 15-year-old Micah Pollock in 1997, allegedly due to jealousy over a girl, is contending his case under Miller should be certified to juvenile court because, he maintains, that he has been successfully rehabilitated by his prison experience.
He said in his petition that rehabilitation is a "key factor" in deciding if the case of a teenager under 18 should be tried in juvenile or adult courts.
In lieu of sending the case to juvenile court, he contends he should be sentenced under third-degree murder, which would be 20 to 240 years for the killing.
The U.S. Supreme Court has reaffirmed that Pennsylvania law for first-degree murder, either death or life without parole, does not apply to juveniles, leaving third degree murder as the only option at this point, Callahan argued.
Holtmeyer, who was 16 years old when she helped hang and bludgeon a classmate to death in 1998, also argues that third-degree murder is really the only sentence remaining open to Pennsylvania judges under the U.S. Supreme Court case.
Clearfield County District Attorney William A. Shaw Jr. said Friday he hasn't seen any of the petitions filed on behalf of the three inmates, but he said he doesn't believe the Miller v. Alabama case will have an effect on their life sentences.
He said hearings may have to be held, but he intends to defend the sentences of life without parole as appropriate in all three cases.
Shaw said the three were convicted of murder and those convictions will stand. He believes also that life without parole can still be imposed in the cases although hearings may have to be held to review mitigating circumstances.
Shaw confirmed that district attorneys throughout Pennsylvania are awaiting guidance from the state Supreme Court in the Cunningham case and from the 3rd Circuit in cases involving defendants Franklin Baines and Michael J. Pendleton.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.