Young killers watch courts
Young killers watch courts BY BRETT HAMBRIGHT, Staff Writer
In what's likely to become a landmark decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently granted a new sentencing hearing for a convicted teenage killer from Northampton County.
The decision gives Qu'eed Batts a chance at relief from his life-without-parole prison term for a gang-initiation shooting he committed in 2006 when he was 14 years old.
The state's high court, in a ruling this week, ordered that Batts be re-sentenced -- essentially offering the possibility that he could be released someday.
The anticipated ruling is the first successful defense appeal in Pennsylvania following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last June that called mandatory life terms for minors "unconstitutional."
However, local experts say, the ruling doesn't address the 13 people serving life sentences who committed murders in Lancaster County when they were juveniles.
The main difference, according to the experts, is that Betts was still on his direct appeals, which are initial appeals to higher courts. Common direct appeals dispute what occurred during a trial, such as a judge's decision or an alleged violation by the prosecution.
Lancaster's juveniles serving life sentences are all past that stage.
A pending state Supreme Court ruling in a Philadelphia case -- Commonwealth vs. Ian Cunningham -- is expected to address those past appeals.
"It is important to note that this case is limited in effect and will only concern the cases on direct appeal," Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said. "The bulk of juvenile murderers in the state are no longer on direct appeal. The potentially monumental (Cunningham) decision on whether (it) will be retroactive to all of those cases is still pending."
That decision will affect many of the estimated 375 juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania.
Of the 13 from Lancaster County in line for relief are: Alec Kreider, who was 16 in 2007 when he killed three members of the Haines family; Ricardo "Richie" Cruz, who was 13 when he shot Debbie Rivera, 18, on a city playground in 1992; Gregory Sourbeer, who has already served 36 years for shooting his mother in 1976 when was 14.
Stedman calls this week's ruling a "favorable outcome for the prosecution."
The high court denied a defense motion that Batts be resentenced for third-degree murder rather than his original first-degree conviction, while also rejecting a defense request that life sentences against juveniles be banned altogether.
Its ruling calls for the Northampton County Court to resentence Batts, but says the new sentence must include a maximum term of life in prison.
"All the sentencing court has to now do is to impose a minimum sentence, along with the maximum of life," Stedman said.
The minimum would be up to the judge, in accordance with state guidelines.
Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which assisted in the Batts appeal, said the ruling doesn't agree with all the defense motions, but takes "into account how children are different from adults."
Juveniles "are entitled to individualized sentences that take into account their diminished culpability," Robert Schwartz, executive director of Juvenile Law Center, said in a statement.
Local defense attorney Jeffrey Conrad said the ruling is a win for the defense in that the state's high court has recognized, in writing, the need to consider different sentences for each teen killer.
"There is a wide variety of kids that can come before a judge," said Conrad, a former prosecutor. "I'm just glad to see the court looking at all the factors. There shouldn't be a blanket sentence."
The state's high court, in its decision, ruled that judges must now consider a range of factors, including a child's age, maturity, involvement in the crime and potential peer pressures.
"I've met those that are evil and I've met those that (acted) stupid," said Conrad, who has handled homicide cases as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney. "You can certainly have that very evil child or you could have a kid who was totally propped up to do something stupid. A kid that may well be redeemed after years of proper treatment and counseling."
Also from Lancaster County serving life-without-parole prison terms are:
n Emru Kebede: He was 16 when he conspired to rob and shoot Ray Diener in West Donegal in 2007.
n Melisa McManus: She was 17 when she suffocated her newborn baby boy in 1993.
n Tabitha Buck: She was 17 when she aided in the killing of Laurie Show in 1991.
n Michael Bourgeois: He was 17 when he tortured and killed his adoptive parents in Ephrata in 2001.
n Aramis Gonzalez III, was 16, Anthony R. Lewis was 17, Rodney Lee Walton was 16 and Clarence Laudenberger was 16 when they were involved in the killing of Lancaster city store clerk Michael Heath in 1996.
n Levar Jones was 14 and Manuel Ortiz was 17 when they were convicted of shooting taxi driver Brian Whetts during a 1995 robbery in Lancaster.
While those inmates anxiously await the Cunningham decision, Stedman said, survivors of the victims are fearful of possible leniency.
"The painful part of the (Batts) ruling is that the victim's family has to suffer through yet another proceeding and a potentially lower sentence," he said.
nSince U.S. Supreme Court ruled life terms for juveniles unconstitutional, prosecutors and defense attorneys look to judges for clarity.