EASTON, Pa. (AP) — Taking advantage of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, attorneys for a Pennsylvania man who was a 14-year-old gang member when he shot to death another teenager in 2006 were in court Thursday to argue their client, who received an automatic sentence of life without parole, deserves a chance at freedom someday.
The state Supreme Court ordered a resentencing hearing for Qu'eed Batts, now 22, following a 2012 ruling by the nation's highest court that banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. Judges and juries must now take into account a defendant's age and maturity level, the nature of the crime and other evidence before imposing such a sentence, and the justices have said they expect it to be levied uncommonly.
The issue of very long sentences for juvenile murderers remains in flux in Pennsylvania, where more than 450 inmates are serving life without parole for crimes they committed when they were minors, according to the Juvenile Law Center — more than any other state. Nationally, there are about 2,600 such inmates.
Batts is among a handful of Pennsylvania inmates whose life-without-parole sentences were under appeal at the time of the Supreme Court ruling and thus are entitled to seek a reduced sentence. But a divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in October that hundreds of other inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles are not entitled to new sentencing hearings because their cases were finalized before the ruling. That decision is under appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Separately, advocates for juvenile offenders are challenging the constitutionality of the state law passed to comply with the ban on automatic life sentences for minors. The new law requires defendants 14 or younger to serve at least 25 years for first-degree murder convictions, while offenders who are 15 to 17 years old face at least 35 years. A legal challenge filed in state Superior Court says that with inmates facing diminished average life expectancies, a 35-year sentence could be tantamount to life for a juvenile.
Batts was convicted in Northampton County of murder and aggravated assault in 2007 in the shooting death of 16-year-old Clarence Edwards and the wounding of another teenager. He said he was acting on the orders of a Bloods gang leader.
Northampton County prosecutors say Batts should die behind bars, citing evidence that he has maintained gang ties while behind bars.
Dr. Timothy Michals, a forensic psychiatrist called by the prosecution, testified Thursday that a January examination of the defendant indicated that Batts continues to exhibit poor judgment and impulse control and is unlikely to change.
The victim's grandmother, Delores Howell, who was home watching TV when her grandson was shot on the front porch, said his death still haunts the family and asked that Batts get life without parole.
"I get so angry that our loved one is no longer here with us," she said of Clarence Edwards, who would have turned 25 on Friday. Howell, who was in court but had a victim's advocate read from a letter she wrote to the judge, said that while Batts' family can spend time with him, Edwards' family can only "talk to him through dirt."
Defense attorneys were getting a chance to present their case Thursday afternoon. Judge Michael Koury said he retains the discretion to sentence Batts to life without parole.