Commonwealth v. Batts

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtJustice SAYLOR.
Citation66 A.3d 286
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Qu‘Eed BATTS, Appellant.
Decision Date26 March 2013

66 A.3d 286

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
Qu‘Eed BATTS, Appellant.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued Sept. 12, 2012.
Decided March 26, 2013.

[66 A.3d 287]

Bradley Steven Bridge, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Sara E. Jacobson, Temple University Law School, Philip D. Lauer, Easton, Marsha Levick, Juvenile Law Center, for Qu‘Eed Batts.

Karl Baker, Ellen T. Greenlee, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, for Appellant Amicus Curiae, Defender Association of Philadelphia.

Jessica Rachel Feierman, Emily Cahn Keller, Juvenile Law Center, for Appellant Amicus Curiae, Juvenile Law Center.

Terence Patrick Houck, Kelly Ann Lewis Fallenstein, John Michael Moranelli, Northampton County District Attorney's Office, Doylestown, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Hugh J. Burns Jr., Ronald Eisenberg, Philadelphia, Edward Michael Marsico Jr., Harrisburg, Edward F. McCann Jr., Philadelphia, Philadelphia District Attorneys Office, Shawn C. Wagner, Adams County District Attorney's Office, Gettysburg, R. Seth Williams, Philadelphia, for Appellee Amicus Curiae, Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.


[66 A.3d 288]


Justice SAYLOR.

This case concerns the appropriate remedy, on direct appeal, for the constitutional violation occurring when a mandatory life-without-parole sentence has been imposed on a defendant convicted of first-degree murder, who was under the age of eighteen at the time of his offense.

On February 7, 2006, Appellant, then fourteen years old, walked up the front porch steps of a house, shot Clarence Edwards in the head, and shot Corey Hilario in the back as the man attempted to flee. Mr. Edwards died on the way to the hospital while Mr. Hilario sustained serious bodily injury but eventually recovered. Following an investigation, police took Appellant into custody and conducted a videotaped interview. Appellant informed the detectives that he had recently been inducted into a gang, and, on the night of the shooting, had been in a car with several other members of the gang, including a senior member named Vernon Bradley. According to Appellant, when the car was outside of the victims' residence, Bradley had given him a gun and a mask and told him to “put some work in,” which Appellant interpreted as an order to shoot the two men on the porch. Appellant admitted that he had shot Mr. Edwards and Mr. Hilario, but stated that he only did so because he believed that he would be killed if he did not follow Bradley's order. Appellant also told the detectives that Bradley had promoted him to a higher ranking within the gang after the murder. The police then charged Appellant with, inter alia, first-degree murder, attempted murder, and aggravated assault. Although Appellant was a juvenile, the nature of the charges automatically placed the matter within the jurisdiction of the criminal court. See42 Pa.C.S. § 6302 (excluding murder from the definition of a “delinquent act”).

Prior to trial, Appellant filed a motion requesting that his case be transferred to juvenile court pursuant to Section 6322 of the Juvenile Act, which requires a juvenile seeking transfer to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that “the transfer will serve the public interest.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 6322(a). The trial judge conducted a hearing in order to consider the statutory factors applicable to the transfer decision, including: the nature and circumstances of the offense; the impact of the offense on the victims and the community; the degree of culpability exhibited by the juvenile and any potential threat to public safety posed by the juvenile; the juvenile's amenability to rehabilitation and the time frame necessary for such; and individual characteristics of the juvenile, such as his age, maturity, mental capacity, prior delinquent history, and degree of criminal sophistication. See42 Pa.C.S. § 6355(a)(4)(iii). Based on testimony presented by both Appellant and the Commonwealth, including experts in forensic psychology, the trial judge determined that transfer to the juvenile system was not appropriate. The judge first emphasized the “horrendous” nature of the crime and the “severe threat to the public” demonstrated by Appellant's “total lack of respect for human life.” Commonwealth v. Batts, No. 1215–2006, slip op. at 5 (C.P. Northampton Feb. 21, 2007). In addition, the trial judge credited the testimony of the Commonwealth's experts that Appellant's “rehabilitation, if it ever occurs, will occur only after years of treatment and a willingness on the part of [Appellant] to seek treatment and rehabilitation, something that their clinical evaluations indicate [Appellant] is not ready to accept.” Id. at 6. The judge also found that Appellant was “streetwise,” with “a well-developed criminal mentality and the degree of maturity

[66 A.3d 289]

necessary to commit audacious criminal acts.” Id.

Accordingly, the matter proceeded to trial, where the Commonwealth presented, inter alia, the testimony of Mr. Hilario, several officers and detectives, and the woman who had been driving the car in which Appellant, Bradley, and other gang members had been riding on the night of the murder. In defense, Appellant testified, consistent with his statement to the police, admitting that he had shot the victims, see N.T. July 30, 2007, at 68, 137–38, on the instruction of Bradley, see id. at 65–66, because his life would have been in danger if he did not follow Bradley's order, see id. at 56, 67. In addition, both the Commonwealth and Appellant presented testimony from expert forensic psychologists who opined as to the psychological factors that may have played a role in Appellant's conduct. Ultimately, despite his defense of duress, the jury convicted Appellant of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and aggravated assault. At sentencing, the court imposed the mandatory term of life imprisonment for first-degree murder, see18 Pa.C.S. § 1102(a)(1) (superseded, relative to juvenile offenders, by 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102.1), which rendered Appellant ineligible for parole, see61 Pa.C.S. § 6137(a)(1), as well as six to twenty years for attempted homicide, to be served concurrently.1

After the trial court denied Appellant's post-sentence motions, he appealed to the Superior Court. Appellant argued, inter alia, that the imposition of a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 161 L.Ed.2d 1 (2005), which held that subjecting juveniles under the age of eighteen to the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. See id. at 578, 125 S.Ct. at 1200.

The Superior Court upheld the sentence of life without parole, distinguishing Roper because that case discussed only the death penalty, which the court emphasized was categorically different than a sentence of imprisonment. See Commonwealth v. Batts, 974 A.2d 1175, ––––, No. 766 EDA 2008, slip op. at 12 (Pa.Super.2009) (table) (quoting Commonwealth v. Wilson, 911 A.2d 942, 946 (Pa.Super.2006), for the proposition that: “[T]he Roper decision bars only the imposition of the death penalty in cases involving juvenile offenders. The ruling does not affect the imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, the sentence imposed in the present case.”). Further, the court explained that prior caselaw had determined that imposing the statutorily-required life-without-parole sentence on juvenile offenders—even those who were fourteen years old at the time of the crime—did not violate the Eighth Amendment. See id. at 13 (citing Commonwealth v. Sourbeer, 492 Pa. 17, 33, 422 A.2d 116, 123–24 (1980) (plurality), superseded by statute on other grounds,42 Pa.C.S. § 6322; Commonwealth v. Carter, 855 A.2d 885, 892 (Pa.Super.2004)). Addressing Appellant's as-applied Eighth Amendment challenge, the court concluded that the sentence was not grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense, given that “Appellant was convicted as the principal actor of a brutal, senseless and premeditated murder.” Id. at 14. The Superior Court also rejected Appellant's contention that due process required the trial court to first consider mitigating

[66 A.3d 290]

circumstances before imposing a life sentence on a juvenile, noting that caselaw requiring the consideration of mitigating circumstances was limited to the context of the death penalty, see id. at 15–16 (citing Sumner v. Shuman, 483 U.S. 66, 76, 107 S.Ct. 2716, 2722–23, 97 L.Ed.2d 56 (1987)), and that adults may be sentenced to a mandatory term of life-without-parole without consideration of mitigating evidence, see id. at 16 (citing Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 996, 111 S.Ct. 2680, 2702, 115 L.Ed.2d 836 (1991)).

This Court granted allowance of appeal, limited to the questions of whether Roper rendered imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on a juvenile unconstitutional and whether Appellant's Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by the mandatory nature of his sentence. See Commonwealth v. Batts, 603 Pa. 65, 981 A.2d 1283 (2009) ( per curiam ). We further reserved consideration pending disposition of Graham v. Florida, ––– U.S. ––––, 129 S.Ct. 2157, 173 L.Ed.2d 1155 (2009), and Sullivan v. Florida, ––– U.S. ––––, 129 S.Ct. 2157, 173 L.Ed.2d 1155 (2009).

After the Supreme Court decided Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, ––––, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 2033, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010),2 which held that imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on juvenile non-homicide offenders violated the Eighth Amendment, the parties filed substantive briefs addressing the federal constitutional issues. In addition, for the first time, Appellant also included a separate argument concerning the...

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