Pennsylvania Supreme Court to Weigh Life Sentences for Felony Murder

By Yana Singhal

ALLEGHENY COUNTY, PA – A case involving a 36-year-old from Allegheny County could open the door to eventual freedom for others convicted of felony murder, and alter the life of Marie “Mechie” Scott, 70, who has endured half a century behind bars and may die there, according to a story in the Pennsylvania Capital Star.

In order to get to the possibility of helping Scott, the PA Supreme Court will hear a case in Allegheny County from a “Derek Lee…on the grounds that mandatory life without parole for felony murder constitutes cruel punishment, violating the Pennsylvania constitution.”

The Pennsylvania Capital Star notes how convicted of felony murder in 2016, Lee (now 36) “participated in a robbery in 2014 when his accomplice fatally shot the homeowner.”

Likewise, the Pennsylvania Capital Star said Scott’s case began on “March 29, 1973, in Philadelphia, (when) 19-year-old Scott, high on sedative pills, committed a string of robberies with her boyfriend, Leroy Saxton. While attempting to rob a gas station, Saxton shot the attendant, Michael Kerrigan…Saxton, who was 16, was convicted of murder. Because he was a juvenile at the time of his crime, he was later resentenced and released on parole in 2020.”

After years of incarceration and after numerous reflections and interviews highlighted by Pennsylvania Capital Star, said Scott “expressed remorse and regret over her role in killing Kerrigan.”

Scott “was raised by her aunt after her mother died and her father was incarcerated. Abused during childhood, she had her first child when she was 15 and rough sleeping in New York,” said the Capital Star, adding after Scott moved to work as a manager in Philadelphia, “two men attempted to rob her at her work. Saxton stepped in, pulling out a silver-colored gun — the same gun later used to shoot Kerrigan.” She said she owed Saxton.

The Capital Star noted “Scott’s difficult background is typical of women serving life sentences…during the tough-on-crime decades of the 1970s to 1990s…courts often did not recognize abuse, trafficking or trauma as conditions that led to criminal involvement.”

Looking at Scott’s case, Bruce Ledewitz, a professor of constitutional law at Duquesne University, said “most states, life-without-parole sentences were a late-20th century innovation” and that “most states had parole eligibility for life sentences, then legislators decided that certain categories of cases’ would be ineligible for parole” wrote Pennsylvania Capital Star.

Pennsylvania Capital Star added, “Pennsylvania law treated felony murder as harshly as intentional murder, allowing for the death penalty, until 1974 when the state legislature rewrote parts of the Crimes Code in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Furman v. Georgia where justices ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional when applied in a capricious manner.”

But, the story added, “Felony murder became second degree murder and capital punishment was no longer an option, but life imprisonment remained as the only, mandatory, sentence” even though “Pennsylvania has not executed a death row prisoner since 1999 and Gov. Josh Shapiro last year extended a moratorium on executions that Gov. Tom Wolf established in 2015.”

Pennsylvania Capital Star added, “[I]n 2020, Scott was the lead plaintiff, among six serving life sentences for felony murder, in an unprecedented constitutional challenge. The lawsuit, filed in Commonwealth Court by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights, argued that mandatory life without parole for those who did not kill or intend to kill violates the state constitution.”

However, despite all of this,  “even if Lee wins, Scott won’t immediately be freed,” noted the PA Capital Star, suggesting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would have to rule that mandatory life-without-parole for felony murder is unconstitutional and that the finding applies retroactively.

“State Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia), introduced Senate Bill 135 last year but it has sat for more than a year in the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee,” according to the Pennsylvania Capital Star.

“The bill would establish parole eligibility after 25 years for those convicted of second-degree murder, including felony murder, and 35 years for those convicted of first-degree murder,” the newspaper added, noting “Street said he believes there is bipartisan support for measures to address parole for felony murder directly and to provide compassionate release for geriatric prisoners serving life sentences.”

The original concept was “introduced in a 2016 bill by state Rep. Jason Dawkins (D-Philadelphia) which would have “allowed those serving life sentences to apply for parole after 15 years,” said the Capital Star, adding, U.S. Sen. John Fetterman sent the board “56 recommendations to the governor’s desk, of which Wolf granted 53” where “the proposed constitutional amendment would restore the requirement for a three-fifths vote to receive a recommendation of clemency that was in place before Ridge changed it.”

Currently, “The bill is awaiting final passage in the House, but the process of amending the state Constitution is arduous. The proposal must pass in the Senate before the end of 2024 and then pass both chambers again before the end of 2026. It would then go before voters in a ballot referendum” stated the Pennsylvania Capital Star.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Indiana), with Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne), said, “We remain open to conversations about ways to also reform parole in Pennsylvania, while ensuring individuals who are convicted of murder charges are appropriately held accountable for their actions against their victims, families, and society. ”

Even if the Pennsylvania “Supreme Court rules in Lee’s favor and makes the ruling applicable to people already serving life sentences, or if any of the legislation passes that would put parole or pardons within reach of lifers like Scott, she still would face months of litigation,” said the Capital Star.

But, the outlet added, “She is still hopeful she may still gain freedom, though she may be too old to live out some of her dream” as echoed by her update where she says, “Nothing is gonna stop our plans.”

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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