Commonwealth v. Cobbs, 56 MAP 2020

CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBAER, CHIEF JUSTICE
Decision Date17 August 2021
Docket Number56 MAP 2020,J-16-2021



No. 56 MAP 2020

No. J-16-2021

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

August 17, 2021

Submitted: January 22, 2021

Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court dated February 24, 2020 at No. 3339 EDA 2018 Affirming the PCRA Order of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, dated October 23, 2018 at No. CP- 46-CR-287-1979.




The offense of assault by a life prisoner is defined, in relevant part, as aggravated assault with a deadly weapon or instrument by an individual "who has been sentenced to death or life imprisonment" and "whose sentence has not been commuted;" the penalty for that offense is life imprisonment. 18 Pa.C.S. § 2704. The issue presented in this appeal, which arises under the Post Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541-9546 ("PCRA"), is whether Appellant James Henry Cobbs' conviction of assault by a life prisoner is vitiated where a court subsequently vacated his predicate sentence of life imprisonment on grounds that it violated the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and resentenced him on the underlying offense to a term of 40 years to lifetime incarceration. We hold that under the circumstances presented, Appellant's life sentence imposed for his conviction of assault by a life prisoner cannot stand. Accordingly, we vacate the Superior Court's judgment, which affirmed the PCRA court's order dismissing Appellant's PCRA petition. We further reverse the PCRA court's order and vacate Appellant's judgment of sentence and his related conviction under Section 2704.

I. Background

The record establishes that more than 50 years ago on October 14, 1970, when Appellant was 17 years old, he and 15 year-old Michael Perkins engaged in a robbery in Allegheny County during which James Brislin was stabbed to death. The evidence demonstrated that while Appellant participated in the robbery, Perkins admitted to police that he was the one who fatally stabbed Brislin. Following a jury trial, Appellant was convicted of first degree murder based on a theory of felony murder.[1] On May 27, 1972, the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas sentenced him to the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. This Court affirmed Appellant's judgment of sentence on direct appeal. Commonwealth v. Cobbs, 305 A.2d 25 (Pa. 1973).

On December 18, 1978, when Appellant was 25 years old and serving his life sentence at SCI-Graterford in Montgomery County, he stabbed a fellow inmate in the forehead during an altercation. As a result, he was charged under Section 2704 of the Crimes Code. As noted, at the time of the offense, this provision stated:

Every person who has been sentenced to death or life imprisonment in any penal institution located in this Commonwealth, and whose sentence has not been commuted, who commits an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon or instrument upon another, or by any means of force likely to produce serious bodily injury, is guilty of a crime, the penalty for which shall be the same as the penalty for murder of the second degree.[2]

18 Pa.C.S. § 2704. [3]

In 1979, a Montgomery County jury convicted Appellant of assault by a life prisoner and related offenses. Bound by Section 2704, the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas sentenced Appellant to a second term of life imprisonment without parole for that offense, to run concurrently with the sentence of life imprisonment imposed for his prior Allegheny County murder conviction. See N.T., Sentencing Hearing, 8/17/1979, at 4-5 (sentencing court judge acknowledging that the "law gives me no choice but to impose a life sentence and, secondly, I think that under all the circumstances a life sentence consecutive in this case would be improper and so I am going to make it concurrent"). The Superior Court affirmed Appellant's judgment of sentence, Commonwealth v. Cobbs, 431 A.2d 335 (Pa. Super. 1981), and this Court denied allowance of appeal. Commonwealth v. Cobbs, 181 E.D. Alloc. Dkt 1982.

In 2012, decades after Appellant was convicted of first degree murder and assault by a life prisoner, he filed petitions for post-conviction relief in both Allegheny and Montgomery Counties.[4] The Allegheny County PCRA petition, which is not at issue in this appeal, challenged Appellant's sentence of life imprisonment without parole imposed for his conviction of first degree murder, which he committed when he was a juvenile. In seeking a new sentencing hearing, Appellant relied upon the United States Supreme Court's then-recent decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), which held that "mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishment.'" Id. at 465.

At issue in this appeal is Appellant's PCRA petition filed in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas ("PCRA court") on August 20, 2012. Therein, Appellant, acting pro se, contended that his life sentence without parole imposed for his conviction of assault by a life prisoner, which was predicated upon his status as a life prisoner at the time of the assault, was rendered unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment pursuant to the High Court's decision in Miller.

On February 11, 2013, the PCRA court filed a notice of intent to dismiss the instant PCRA petition without a hearing pursuant to Pa.R.Crim.P. 907 on grounds that the petition was filed untimely.[5] Cognizant that a PCRA petition shall be filed within one year of the date the judgment becomes final, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1), Appellant asserted in his response to the notice to dismiss that his petition fell under the exception to the timeliness requirement providing that "the right asserted is a constitutional right that was recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States or the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania after the time period provided in this section and has been held by that court to apply retroactively." 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1)(iii). Appellant contended that his PCRA petition was timely filed within the 60-day period then required for exceptions to the timeliness requirement set forth in Section 9545(b)(2), as the High Court decided Miller on June 25, 2012, and Appellant's PCRA petition was filed on August 20, 2012. [6] He further requested a hearing on his petition.

Appellant's PCRA petition remained pending and no action was taken in connection therewith until March 22, 2016, when counsel entered an appearance for Appellant and filed a request for leave to file an amended PCRA petition. The PCRA court granted leave to file an amended PCRA petition, and counsel did so on December 30, 2016. Therein, Appellant contended that within the last 60 days, the High Court had declared in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), that Miller's constitutional ban on imposing mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles applied retroactively.[7]

Because Appellant was a juvenile when he committed the first degree murder, he maintained that he was entitled to a new sentencing hearing in connection with his pending Allegheny County PCRA petition, which challenged the mandatory life-without-parole sentence he received for that offense. Notably, Appellant further argued that if the court resentenced him to a term other than life imprisonment without parole on his initial murder charge, he would be entitled to post-conviction relief in this case relating to the mandatory life-without-parole sentence imposed pursuant to Section 2704 for his subsequent assault by a life prisoner conviction. By order dated February 27, 2017, the PCRA court directed that the instant PCRA petition be held in abeyance pending resolution of Appellant's Allegheny County PCRA petition challenging his sentence imposed for first degree murder.

On September 18, 2017, in compliance with Miller and Montgomery, the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas granted Appellant's request for post-conviction relief in the form of a new sentencing hearing on his first degree murder conviction. A resentencing hearing was held on September 19, 2017, during which the Commonwealth and Appellant agreed to a sentence of 40 years to life imprisonment with credit for time served from the date of Appellant's arrest on October 28, 1970. Having already served nearly 47 years of incarceration, Appellant's new murder sentence allowed for the possibility for parole on that conviction. See N.T., Resentencing Hearing, 9/19/2017, at 40.

After reviewing the evidence presented at the hearing, the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas accepted the parties' agreement and sentenced Appellant on his first degree murder conviction to 40 years to life imprisonment, with credit for time served. The trial court summarized the evidence supporting imposition of that sentence as follows: that Appellant was 17 years old at the time of the murder and was subject to peer pressure and mental health issues; that Appellant did not actually commit the murder, but participated in the robbery and was convicted based upon a felony murder theory; that Appellant's mother died when he was 14 years old and that he thereafter lived with his sister and various siblings in a very stressful home environment; and that Appellant was nearly illiterate at the time he entered prison. Id. at 41. While recognizing his responsibility for the murder, the court informed Appellant that "it's not that you are going to rehabilitate, it is you have rehabilitated and you have changed your life." Id. at 42. The court cited the wonderful reviews Appellant received from the prison bakery where he worked and his strong family support, particularly that of his nephew who was in a position to assist him in obtaining employment if he were paroled. Id...

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