In 1987, when Timothy H. of Philipsburg was 15, he ran away from a juvenile detention center. On Christmas Eve of that year, he allegedly shot a man to death. The following June, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
He could now be resentenced to a shorter term of perhaps 35 years in prison. This is because in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to sentence minors to life behind bars with no chance of an exit.
Young offenders can and do commit serious crimes, but they haven’t yet completed their full cognitive and emotional development, the court reasoned. Moreover, when their family or home environment is brutal or dysfunctional, minors have no way out. It’s unjust to lock them away forever with no hope of a second chance.
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan for the majority.
The ruling will be applied retroactively to defendants who had already received life sentences.
The court said, as a guideline, that juveniles who commit murder between the ages of 15 and 18 should generally be sentenced to a minimum of 35 years in prison — with the possibility of release. In order to achieve a life sentence at resentencing, the state or commonwealth has to prove that there is no chance the defendant could be rehabilitated.
The man is being resentenced now because procedures for handling these situations are finally in place. His case was just heard by the Clearfield County Court.
Department of Corrections employees testified at a hearing recently. They said he is calm, thoughtful, courteous and helpful to other inmates who are seeking legal help through the law library. They called him an asset to the library. A prison counselor said he was in favor of Timothy receiving parole.
Timothy has always maintained his innocence in the murder he was convicted of, and that could work against him. Since he has been convicted, prosecutors view his denials as a refusal to take responsibility for his crime.
One thing may overcome that factor — the family of the murdered man’s support. Speaking for the family, the victim’s son said that Timothy deserves a second chance. “We do not wish to see him incarcerated anymore,” he said.
The hearing could not be completed in time for the holidays, so Timothy will remain behind bars for now. It will continue next year. We hope for a just and merciful decision.