HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Pennsylvania is number one in the nation.
It’s tops in the number of inmates sentenced to life in prison as juveniles.
“You have states like Florida, California, Texas which have two to three times our prison population. We still have more juvenile lifers than all of them,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said.
The numbers are eye-popping. There are roughly 2,500 juvenile lifers in the entire country. Pennsylvania prisons house 514 of them.
The United States Supreme Court has found it to be cruel and unusual, therefore unconstitutional, to automatically sentence a minor to life without the possibility of parole.
Wetzel understands the high court’s rationale.
“Fourteen-, 15-, 16-year-olds, their brains aren’t developed to a point where they can form intent,” Wetzel said.
Moving forward, Pennsylvania won’t give automatic life sentences to juveniles, but what about the hundreds sitting behind bars now that are in or approaching middle age?
Inmates like Giovanni Reid, who was 16 and hanging out with older guys from his Philadelphia neighborhood on Aug. 10, 1991. One of those older guys tried to rob a pre-med student and did a very bad thing.
“He shot the guy,” Reid said in a telephone interview from the Graterford state prison. “We all ran and we reconvened back at another friend’s house.”
The group was quickly caught and arrested, but Reid has steadfastly maintained his innocence since the fatal shot was fired.
“I didn’t do anything. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people,” Reid said.
Philadelphia prosecutors insist that Reid played a much more active role in the robbery that ended in death. He was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder since he didn’t actually pull the trigger, but the sentence was the same: life without parole.
“He had a very poor defense. He did not testify in his own defense. When the commonwealth rested, the defense rested. The jury deliberated for about three hours,” said Latasha Williams, a Susquehanna Township resident and third-year law student at Widener University’s Commonwealth campus.
Williams’ passion is the plight of juvenile lifers in general, and Giovanni Reid in particular. She has studied his case for more than a decade.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, this man is actually innocent of murder,'” Williams said.
Reid’s numerous appeals were denied by Pennsylvania courts, but because he was given an automatic life sentence for a crime he committed at 16, he is entitled to a new sentencing hearing.
The U.S. Supreme Court has given Reid and lots of inmates like him new hope.
Not everyone is applauding.
“I think they made the wrong decision, but it doesn’t matter what I think. This is the United States Supreme Court,” Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said.
Stedman and district attorneys across the state have to reopen the case files of their juvenile lifers, who will get new sentencing hearings. The families of victims will be getting phone calls, which Stedman is dreading.
“We have to have a conversation with these people about the worst thing that’s ever happened in their life and say, ‘by the way, when we said life meant life, we really didn’t mean it. And I know it’s been 15 or 20 yeas and this person that killed your loved one, that you thought would never get out, is now going to get out,'” Stedman said. “They have to go through the whole thing again.”
Reid went to prison when he was 16. He is now 41.
Insisting he was innocent, Reid says he rejected a plea deal of 25 years offered by the Philadelphia district attorney. That was 26 years ago. A judge will take a fresh look at his sentence, but no court date for that has yet been set.
“It doesn’t seem like they’re moving the process along as fast as they could,” Reid said dejectedly.
Williams is frustrated.
“It’s justice denied,” she said. “Every day he sits is justice denied to an innocent man.”
Wetzel makes no apologies for the delay.
“You’re talking about a big bureaucracy, quite frankly,” he said.
Wetzel estimates it’ll take three to four years but more than 50 percent of juvenile lifers will be set free. There’s a chance, perhaps a good chance, that Giovanni Reid will be one of them.
“That would be wonderful,” Williams said with a smile. “However, three to four years, in my opinion, is a long time when the Supreme Court has spoken.”
“Nothing happens overnight in a system like this,” Wetzel said when pressed about the timing of re-sentencing hearings.
District attorneys like Stedman are in no rush to release prisoners. Many are awaiting guidance on how to proceed from the state Supreme Court. They expect it could come from the Betts case that will be argued in December. A decision could come next spring with clarification on a re-sentencing process.
But district attorneys are bracing for the day when the jailhouse doors are opened and a convicted murderers walk free.
“There’s gonna be a price to be paid because we’re gonna be pushing people out of the system and they’re gonna re-victimize people. We’ll see that,” Stedman said with certainty.
But Wetzel is just as certain that won’t happen. He says the research is clear that the inmates that judges ultimately deem worthy of freedom will not re-offend.
“The group we’re talking about are people who have been incarcerated 20 or 30 years and are in their upper 40s,” Wetzel said. “I’m not anticipating a crime wave.”
Reid promises to be a good citizen if given the opportunity.
“When you spend this amount of time in prison and you feel like you’re gonna die in prison, there’s no way you will have to worry about somebody getting out and doing something stupid,” he said.