Felony murder: An unaddressed issue in the Supreme Court’s juvenile lifer decision
In a statement following the Supreme Court ruling, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said the decision “will have little to no impact here in Philadelphia. The decision involves juveniles under the age of 18 serving a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a crime other than murder. In Philadelphia we believe there are no such cases.”
But the reality isn’t so clear-cut: Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion states that “defendants who do not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken are categorically less deserving of [life without the possibility of parole] than are murderers.”
In Pennsylvania, the felony — or second-degree — murder rule imposes a mandatory life sentence without parole for any crime involving a homicide, whether or not that homicide was intended. And because the commonwealth allows juveniles to be tried as adults in murder cases, there are many cases in Pennsylvania involving juveniles sentenced to life without parole for crimes in which they did not kill, intend to kill or foresee that a life would be taken.
Most of the coverage following the Supreme Court’s decision two weeks ago emphasized that relatively few kids incarcerated for life would find their sentences affected by the new legislation. But states where the felony murder rule is law may find that number significantly higher in upcoming months.