On a muggy July evening in 1986 — less than two months after his 17th birthday — Aaron Phillips made a decision that would land him in prison for the rest of his life. Lured by the promise of quick cash, he and an older accomplice set upon the Pottstown, Pa., home of 86-year-old Anthony “Eddie” McEvoy with the intention of stealing his wallet. The details of the crime are sketchy, but according to court documents, McEvoy “was grabbed, his wallet was removed from his pocket, and he was knocked down to the floor.” When police arrived they found the victim ambulatory but complaining of pain to his hip. An X-ray indicated he had suffered a borderline fracture of his femur.
Despite his advanced age, doctors decided to operate, and a week after the surgery, McEvoy went into cardiac arrest and died. The coroner noted that while the primary cause of death was hypertensive heart disease aggravated by prior surgery for bowel cancer, the stress of the fall 18 days earlier had most likely precipitated McEvoy's demise — which made the death a homicide.
Phillips was arrested, implicated by his co-defendant as part of a plea deal and — in what turned out to be his second big mistake that year — decided to take his parents’ advice and fight the charges instead of pleading guilty to a lesser charge. He was convicted of second-degree murder in January 1988 and sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
In the eyes of the U.S. Supreme Court, Pennsylvania violated Phillips’ constitutional rights when it sentenced him to die in prison, but thanks to the nuances of American jurisprudence — which favors procedure over principle —that injustice alone doesn’t make him eligible for a new sentencing hearing.
In 2012 the court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences for offenders under the age of 18 violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court left open the possibility of life sentences for juveniles but ruled that “a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.”
To date, at least a dozen states have reformed their sentencing laws to comply with the decision — including Pennsylvania, which now enforces the lesser sentence of 25 years to life for juveniles convicted of murder. But the justices left it up to the states to decide whether Miller should apply retroactively to inmates who received their mandatory sentences prior to the ruling. Last week Illinois became the fifth state to definitely say that it does, when the state Supreme Court ordered the resentencing of roughly 100 lifers convicted of murder when they were juveniles. Four other states (Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi and Nebraska) have come to the same conclusion, and two more (Florida and Michigan) are considering the matter now.
In October the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Miller would apply retroactively only to inmates who have not exhausted their direct appeals — meaning that Phillips, who made his final plea to the state’s highest court in 1991, can expect to spend the rest of his life in jail for a mistake he made before he was old enough to vote.
A dubious honor
Phillips is hardly alone. With more than 400 juvenile lifers, Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of inmates sentenced to life with no possibility of parole for crimes they committed as minors. At least a quarter have been locked up for more than 30 years — and nearly as many were charged as accomplices, meaning they never even laid a hand on their victims.
One inmate, 77-year-old Joseph Ligon of Philadelphia, was 15 when he was arrested in 1953 and holds the distinction of being the state’s longest-serving prisoner. The year he was incarcerated, Dwight D. Eisenhower was just elected president, “I Love Lucy” was the No. 1 show on television, and sending a man to the moon was still the stuff of science fiction.
These are unprecedented sentences even for adult offenders in America, where the average murderer spends 20 years in jail and life without parole is reserved for perpetrators of particularly heinous crimes.
Another inmate, Jackie Lee Thompson, has been serving a life sentence since 1969 for killing his girlfriend in a fit of rage when he was 15. A black-and-white mugshot of Thompson taken after his arrest shows a slight, smooth-faced boy who hasn’t grown into his ears yet. The father of Thompson’s victim has been lobbying for more than a decade to get his daughter’s killer released, and a former prison official has offered Thompson a place to stay if he ever gets out. But the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons has repeatedly refused to recommend clemency.
These are unprecedented sentences even for adult offenders in America, where the average murderer spends 20 years in jail and life without parole is reserved for repeat offenders or perpetrators of particularly heinous crimes.
Pennsylvania’s shameful distinction in this regard can be attributed to a combination of uniquely austere sentencing laws and knee-jerk politics. The commonwealth is one of only six states where all life sentences are imposed without the possibility of parole and one of only two — Louisiana being the other — where both first- and second-degree murder convictions carry mandatory life sentences. What’s more, since Pennsylvania doesn’t recognize a charge of juvenile murder, all homicides in the state are treated as adult crimes, regardless of the perpetrator’s age.
Even so, for decades governors frequently exercised their commutation powers, and since the end of World War II, more than 1,200 lifers have been released from Pennsylvania’s prisons after serving an average of 20 years. That began to change in 1979, when a rape and murder spree committed by a recently released juvenile lifer, Reginald McFadden, prompted changes to Pennsylvania’s constitution that greatly restricted the commutation process. The effect was striking; almost overnight governors went from commuting dozens of life sentences a year to practically none at all.
Over the past two decades the Board of Pardons has recommended just 10 lifers for release, and of those only six have been granted clemency. During the same period, the number of inmates serving life without parole in Pennsylvania has more than doubled.
While some crimes may well warrant a protracted prison sentence, by almost any theory of correctional practice, men like Phillips, Ligon and Thompson — who committed their crimes before they were adults and have served decades of their sentences — have been in jail for far too long.
At the very least, they deserve new hearings to determine if they would have qualified for lesser sentences under Pennsylvania’s reformed guidelines. While the rights of victims to find closure cannot be ignored, criminal justice is a social vehicle, not a personal one — which is why, unlike civil proceedings, criminal cases are prosecuted by the state, not individuals. Vengeance may retain a dubious place in the spectrum of human emotion, but it has no place in public policy.
The Miller decision is one of several key steps taken by the Supreme Court since the 1980s that draw a legal distinction between children who commit crimes and adult offenders. Unfortunately, the justices didn’t go far enough. If imposing a mandatory life sentence on a juvenile is unconstitutional now, surely it was in 1988 or 1969 or 1953. In refusing to make Miller retroactive, Pennsylvania has proved that when it comes to upholding constitutional principles, states can’t always be trusted to do the right thing.