In June 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile ~ someone who was under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed ~ to a mandatory life without parole sentence. The Miller court decision did not determine if the decision should be applied retroactively and left that question to the states to answer. In 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided in Commonwealth v. Cunningham that Miller was not retroactive.
In January 2016, the United States Supreme Court disagreed. The court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller should be applied retroactively and should apply to cases decided prior to the 2012 court ruling. The Montgomery court ruling means that juvenile offenders previously sentenced to mandatory life without parole can seek to be resentenced by the trial court.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued a ruling on the “juvenile lifer” issue which gives a bit of clarity on the procedural path these types of cases will take. In non-legal language it says:
With the Montgomery ruling, every “juvenile lifer” in PA now has the right to file a PCRA (Post Conviction Relief Act) petition. Their case will be heard by the county court that has jurisdiction over their sentence. The ruling did not provide any clarity on a sentence structure for this process so that determination is up to the discretion of each state or county to determine.
In a June 2017, the PA Supreme Court of the Middle District issued its decision in Commonwealth v. Batts case. Qu’eed Batts was convicted of first-degree murder he committed when he was 14. The issue for the PA Supreme Court’s review was whether the sentencing court imposed an illegal sentence when it resentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Court concluded, based on the findings made by the sentencing court and the evidence upon which it relied, the sentence was illegal in light of Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana. Pursuant to its grant of allowance of appeal, the Court further concluded that to effectuate the orders of Miller and Montgomery, procedural safeguards were required to ensure that life without parole sentences were meted out only to “the rarest of juvenile offenders” whose crimes reflected “permanent incorrigibility,” “irreparable corruption” and “irretrievable depravity,” as required by Miller and Montgomery. The Pennsylvania Court recognized a presumption against the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender. To rebut the presumption, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is incapable of rehabilitation.