Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled a U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared sentences of life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional cannot be applied retroactively, striking a significant blow to hundreds of inmates statewide, including a notorious child killer from Lackawanna County.
Joseph Aulisio, formerly of Old Forge, is among inmates who sought to overturn their sentences based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. A second man, Kenneth Crawford from Luzerne County, also sought to overturn his life sentence for murders of two people in Hollenback Twp.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a June 2012 ruling, said sentences of life without parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court did not say whether its decision could be applied to defendants, like Mr. Aulisio and Mr. Crawford, who had already exhausted all of their appeals, however. That decision was left up to individual state courts.
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court took up the issue in September 2012 when it heard the appeal of Ian Cunningham of Philadelphia, who was 17 when he shot and killed a man during a robbery. Mr. Cunningham had already exhausted his appeals by the time the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was issued.
In a 4-3 decision issued Wednesday, the state appellate court determined the U.S. Supreme Court ruling does not apply in Mr. Cunningham’s case.
The ruling had been highly anticipated by defense attorneys and prosecutors statewide. Had the court ruled the other way, it’s estimated nearly 500 inmates would be eligible for new sentencing hearings, said Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which filed appeals on behalf of numerous inmates.
Mr. Aulisio was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for the 1981 shotgun slayings of 8-year-old Cheryl Ziemba and her 4-year-old brother, Christopher. Mr. Aulisio, who was 16 at the time, was arrested days after the childrens’ bodies were discovered in strip pits in Old Forge.
Mr. Crawford and another man were convicted of killing Diana Algar and Jose Molina at the Paradise Camp Resort in Hollbenback Twp. in 1999, when Mr. Crawford was 15.
The ruling in the Cunningham case means Mr. Aulisio and Mr. Crawford cannot use the U.S. Supreme Court decision as a legal basis to challenge their sentences.
A second Lackawanna County man, Christian Kenyon, who was sentenced to life without parole for a murder committed as a juvenile, may be entitled to a new sentencing hearing, however, based on a separate state Supreme Court ruling issued earlier this year, said Lackawanna County District Attorney Andy Jarbola.
Mr. Kenyon, a Scranton street gang member, was 17 when he participated in the execution-style shooting of Allen Fernandez in 2009. Mr. Jarbola said Mr. Kenyon’s case differs from Mr. Aulisio’s in that Mr. Kenyon had appeals pending in state court when the U.S. Supreme Court ruling came down. The state Supreme Court, in a ruling issued in the case of Qu’eed Batts of Philadelphia, earlier this year determined the U.S. Supreme Court ruling did apply in cases where appeals were pending.
Mr. Jarbola said he’s pleased by the court’s latest ruling as it ensures that Mr. Aulisio’s sentence will stand. As for Mr. Kenyon, should his case come back for re-sentencing, Mr. Jarbola noted he could again be sentenced to life in prison without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling does not preclude a judge from sentencing a juvenile to life. It only requires that the judge conduct an independent review of the case and state his or her reasoning on the record.
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