Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Commonwealth v. Batts

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

June 26, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellee
v.
QU'EED BATTS, Appellant

          ARGUED: December 7, 2016

         Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court dated September 4, 2015, reconsideration denied November 10, 2015, at No. 1764 EDA 2014 Affirming the Judgment of Sentence of the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, dated May 2, 2014 at No. CP-48-CR-0001215-2006

          SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

          OPINION

          DONOHUE JUSTICE

         Qu'eed Batts ("Batts") was convicted of a first-degree murder that he committed when he was fourteen years old. His case returns for the second time on discretionary review for this Court to determine whether the sentencing court imposed an illegal sentence when it resentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After careful review, we conclude, based on the findings made by the sentencing court and the evidence upon which it relied, that the sentence is illegal in light of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (holding that a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, imposed upon a juvenile without consideration of the defendant's age and the attendant characteristics of youth, is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016) (holding that the Miller decision announced a new substantive rule of constitutional law that applies retroactively and clarifying the limited circumstances in which a life-without-parole sentence is permissible for a crime committed when the defendant was a juvenile).

         Pursuant to our grant of allowance of appeal, we further conclude that to effectuate the mandate of Miller and Montgomery, procedural safeguards are required to ensure that life-without-parole sentences are meted out only to "the rarest of juvenile offenders" whose crimes reflect "permanent incorrigibility, " "irreparable corruption" and "irretrievable depravity, " as required by Miller and Montgomery. Thus, as fully developed in this Opinion, we recognize 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.

         I. Facts

         Although this Court generally does not provide an exhaustive recitation of an offender's history prior to the commission of the crime, as we explain in greater detail later in this Opinion, Miller requires the sentencing court to consider the details of a juvenile offender's background when determining if he or she is eligible for a sentence of life without parole. As such, we provide a lengthy account of Batts' life preceding his commission of the murder, based largely on the findings of fact made by the resentencing court that are supported by the record.

         Batts was born prematurely on April 18, 1991 to a thirteen-year-old mother and seventeen-year-old father. A victim of his mother's neglect, Batts was shuffled around the foster care system from ages five through twelve. During that timeframe, he lived in eleven homes (as well as a homeless shelter for youth) located in nine cities and two states, and transferred schools eleven times (although there were stretches of several months that, because of his transiency, Batts did not attend school at all). He was exposed to physical violence by foster parents, subjected to physical violence by his peers, and on one occasion, was victimized sexually by an older cousin. At age eleven, while in the homeless shelter, he lost his virginity to a thirteen-year-old female resident. He frequently got into fights at school because children would tease him about his circumstances. Through it all, however, Batts performed well academically and excelled in several sports.

         At some point during his childhood, Batts developed a relationship with his father, who was in and out of jail during Batts' formative years. That relationship abruptly ended, though, when Batts was eight, as his father was sentenced to twelve years of incarceration on federal drug charges and no visitation was provided. Around that same time, Batts briefly returned to the care of his mother, but he was removed again when she struck him in front of school officials and said she no longer wanted him.

         According to Batts, he struggled with feelings of abandonment and rejection because of his familial circumstances. He desired only to live with his mother, but she failed to comply with the requirements for reunification established by the county agency. It was only once Batts' paternal grandfather, who had been his caregiver on and off over the years, expressed a desire to adopt him that Batts' mother finally completed the tasks required for her to regain custody of her son.

         At the age of twelve, Batts returned to his mother's care in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. They resided in an apartment with his mother's boyfriend, Batts' younger sister, and eventually, a baby brother. Batts reportedly bonded with his mother and her boyfriend and was happy to be home. He attended Phillipsburg Middle School in the seventh grade, where he played football, but he began to decline academically and was suspended several times for fighting.

         He became sexually active in the seventh and eighth grades, began drinking alcohol and experimented with smoking marijuana. It was at this time that he met Jerome Evans, an older teen who was a member of the Bloods gang. He told Batts that the gang was a family group that took care of each other, which Batts found enticing. Batts began associating with the gang when he was in middle school and sold drugs for them.

         Batts and his family relocated across the river to Easton, Pennsylvania, but he continued to attend school in Phillipsburg, where he played basketball and football. In late December or early January of his ninth grade year, Batts was initiated into the Bloods by getting "jumped in" ‒ a ritual that required him to fight five different gang members for thirty-six seconds each.

         Batts' grades plummeted, prompting his mother to withdraw him from basketball. He argued with his mother about his failure to do his school work and began skipping school. On February 2, 2006, Batts went out in the evening and did not return home until 2:00 a.m. When he arrived home, his mother was angry and struck him. As a result, at the age of fourteen, Batts packed his clothes, left for school the morning of February 3 and never returned home. He stayed at his girlfriend's house and in the homes of other friends in both Easton and Phillipsburg. He stopped attending school.

         On the night of February 7, 2006, Batts was in a vehicle with several members of the Bloods gang. Vernon Bradley, a senior member of the Bloods to whom Batts had recently been "assigned, " was in the car talking about his desire to rob and kill someone. Bradley directed the driver of the vehicle to the 700 block of Spring Garden Street in Easton, Pennsylvania, where he saw Clarence Edwards and Corey Hilario outside. In the preceding days, Bradley told Batts on several occasions that he was going to kill Edwards. Batts was aware that Bradley had previously killed three other people.

         Bradley instructed the driver to stop the vehicle. He asked Batts and the two other young teenagers in the back of the car who was going to put in "work." None of the passengers responded. The record reflects that Bradley then turned to Batts, handed him a gun and a mask, and told him to put on a glove and "put work in." Upon receiving that directive, Batts exited the car, walked up to the house and shot Clarence Edwards twice in the head, killing him, and shot Corey Hilario once in the back as Hilario fled into the house, causing him serious bodily injury. Edwards and Hilario were sixteen and eighteen years old, respectively. At the time of the shooting, Batts did not know either victim.

         When Batts returned to the car, he gave the gun back to Bradley. Although Batts indicated that he felt nothing at the time he pulled the trigger, immediately after the shooting he stated that he regretted what he had done and was scared. Bradley stated that he was pleased with the "work" Batts had done, and thereafter, Batts was promoted to a higher rank within the Bloods. According to Batts' statement to police and his testimony at trial, he participated in the shooting because he was afraid that if he did not comply with Bradley's demands, Bradley would kill him.

         Batts spent the night at Bradley's house and the following day, went to Phillipsburg, New Jersey. On February 10, 2006, police located Batts at a house there. Batts initially attempted to shield his identity from the police, but he was ultimately arrested and brought in for an interrogation, for which his mother and stepfather were present. He waived his Miranda rights and after two attempts to disclaim his involvement in the shooting, Batts confessed.

         II. Procedural History

         The Commonwealth charged Batts with criminal homicide, attempted criminal homicide, aggravated assault, and two counts of criminal conspiracy.[1] As we explained in our prior consideration of this case, despite his age, the homicide charge removed the matter from the jurisdiction of the juvenile court and required Batts' case to be filed in adult criminal court. See Commonwealth v. Batts, 66 A.3d 286, 288 (Pa. 2013) ("Batts I"); 42 Pa.C.S. § 6302 (excepting murder from the definition of a delinquent act). Batts filed, inter alia, a pretrial motion requesting the transfer of his case to juvenile court. The trial court held a hearing on Batts' motion on January 29 and 30, 2007. In support of his motion, Batts presented the expert testimony and written report of forensic psychologist Dr. Allan M. Tepper; the Commonwealth countered with expert testimony and reports from forensic psychologist Dr. Steven Samuel and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Michals. Both sides also presented lay testimony.

         After considering the evidence presented, the trial court concluded that Batts failed to satisfy his burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the public interest would be served by decertifying the matter to juvenile court. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 6322(a). In its consideration of the statutorily required factors, [2] the trial court found that the crime was "horrendous" and negatively impacted the community; that Batts constituted a "severe threat to the public" and was "'streetwise, ' with 'a well-developed criminal mentality and the degree of maturity necessary to commit audacious criminal acts.'" Batts I, 66 A.3d at 288-89 (quoting Trial Court Order, 2/21/2007, at 5-6). The trial court rejected Dr. Tepper's conclusion that Batts could be rehabilitated by the age of twenty-one (the age at which the jurisdiction of the juvenile court terminates, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 6302 (defining "child"); Pa.R.J.C.P. 630), instead crediting the conclusion shared by the Commonwealth's experts "that rehabilitation, if it ever occurs, will occur only after years of treatment and a willingness on the part of Mr. Batts to seek treatment and rehabilitation, something that their clinical evaluations indicate Mr. Batts is not ready to accept." Trial Court Order, 2/21/2007, at 6.

         The case proceeded to a jury trial before the Honorable William F. Moran in the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas. Batts advanced a defense of duress based upon his fear that Bradley would kill him if he did not comply with his orders. On July 31, 2007, following a six day trial, the jury convicted Batts of first-degree murder, [3]attempted murder and aggravated assault. On October 22, 2007, the sentencing court imposed the then-mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole for his first-degree murder conviction, see 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102(a) (amended effective Dec. 16, 2008 and Oct. 25, 2012), and a concurrent sentence of six to twenty years of incarceration for attempted murder (into which his aggravated assault conviction merged for sentencing purposes).

         A. First Superior Court Appeal

         Following the denial of post-sentence motions, Batts appealed the decision to the Superior Court raising, in relevant part, a challenge to the constitutionality of a life-without-parole sentence imposed upon a juvenile in light of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (holding that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the imposition of the death penalty for a crime committed by a juvenile). The Superior Court affirmed Batts' judgment of sentence in an unpublished memorandum, concluding that because Batts was not sentenced to death, Roper was inapplicable. It further found that his constitutional challenge to the mandatory nature of his life-without-parole sentence was meritless. See Commonwealth v. Batts, 766 EDA 2008, 12-16 (Pa. Super. April 7, 2009) (unpublished memorandum).

         B. Batts I

         This Court granted allowance of appeal but held the matter pending the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida, 129 S.Ct. 2157 (2009), decided, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), and Sullivan v. Florida, 129 S.Ct. 2157 (2009), writ of certiorari dismissed as improvidently granted, 560 U.S. 181 (2010). Subsequent to the decision in Graham, Batts' case was argued before this Court, following which we withheld decision pending the disposition of Miller v. Alabama, 565 U.S. 1013 (2011) (per curiam), and Jackson v. Hobbs, 565 U.S. 1013 (2011) (per curiam), decided together, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). Batts I was the first post-Miller decision from this Court addressing the sentencing of a juvenile offender convicted of first-degree murder. We therefore requested supplemental briefs and argument from the parties addressing the appropriate remedy and availability of relief for Batts and those similarly situated. See Batts I, 66 A.3d at 293 (citing Commonwealth v. Batts, 79 MAP 2009, July 9, 2012 Order (per curiam)).

         In the interim, the Pennsylvania General Assembly responded to Miller by enacting a new sentencing statute for juveniles convicted of first- and second-degree murder after June 24, 2012.[4] See 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102.1(a), (c). As it relates to first-degree murder, section 1102.1 requires defendants who were under the age of fifteen at the time of the offense to be sentenced, at a minimum, to twenty-five years to life in prison, or to a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102.1(a)(2), (e). Offenders who committed first-degree murder when they were between the ages of fifteen and eighteen must be sentenced, pursuant to the statute, to a minimum of thirty-five years to life in prison, or to a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102.1(a)(1), (e). If the Commonwealth intends to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, it must provide reasonable notice to the defendant following his or her conviction, prior to sentencing. 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102.1(b). In making its determination of whether to sentence a defendant to life in prison without parole under subsection (a), the sentencing court is required to consider and make findings on the record related to the following factors:

(1) The impact of the offense on each victim, including oral and written victim impact statements made or submitted by family members of the victim detailing the physical, psychological and economic effects of the crime on the victim and the victim's family. A victim impact statement may include comment on the sentence of the defendant.
(2) The impact of the offense on the community.
(3) The threat to the safety of the public or any individual posed by the defendant.
(4) The nature and circumstances of the offense committed by the defendant.
(5) The degree of the defendant's culpability.
(6) Guidelines for sentencing and resentencing adopted by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.
(7) Age-related characteristics of the defendant, including:
(i) Age.
(ii) Mental capacity.
(iii) Maturity.
(iv) The degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the defendant.
(v) The nature and extent of any prior delinquent or criminal history, including the success or failure of any previous attempts by the court to rehabilitate the defendant.
(vi) Probation or institutional reports.
(vii) Other relevant factors.

18 Pa.C.S. § 1102.1(d).

         In rendering our decision in Batts I, we took note of section 1102.1, but ultimately concluded that it was inapplicable because of the date of Batts' conviction. Batts I, 66 A.3d at 293. In Batts' supplemental brief and argument to this Court, he contended that, in light of Miller, Pennsylvania's sentencing scheme for first-degree murder, requiring a mandatory sentence of life without parole, was unconstitutional in its entirety. He asserted that his sentence should thus revert to "the most severe lesser included offense, namely, third-degree murder[.]" Id. at 294. We found that argument, and the inapposite case law presented in support, to be unavailing. Rather, we agreed with the Commonwealth and its amicus, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, that in sentencing a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder, if the sentencing court found, after considering the requisite factors, that a life-without-parole sentence was not appropriate, the problematic portion of the first-degree murder sentencing scheme was severable, and we could save the remaining portion of the legislative enactments without offending the pronouncement in Miller or our rules of statutory interpretation. See id. at 295-97. Specifically, the Court noted that section 1102 of the Crimes Code required, in relevant part, an individual convicted of first-degree murder to be sentenced "to a term of life imprisonment." 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102(a)(1). The "without parole" aspect of the sentence arose from section 6137(a)(1) of the Parole Code, which prohibited the release on parole of any person sentenced to life imprisonment. 61 Pa.C.S. § 6137(a)(1).

         We therefore held that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder prior to Miller could, after the sentencing court's evaluation of the criteria identified in Miller, [5] be subjected to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. See Batts I, 66 A.3d at 296. For those defendants for whom the sentencing court determines a life-without-parole sentence is inappropriate, "it is our determination here that they are subject to a mandatory maximum sentence of life imprisonment as required by [s]ection 1102(a), accompanied by a minimum sentence determined by the common pleas court upon resentencing, " id. at 297, striking the prohibition against paroling an individual sentenced to serve life in prison in section 6137(a)(1) as applied to these offenders.

         This Court further rejected the argument advanced by Batts and his amici[6] that Article I, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution requires a categorical ban on the imposition of a life-without-parole sentence for crimes committed when the defendant was a juvenile. The Court found that "nothing in the arguments presented suggests that Pennsylvania's history favors a broader proportionality rule than what is required by the United States Supreme Court." Id. at 299. We therefore vacated the Superior Court's decision in Batts I and remanded the case to the sentencing court for proceedings consistent with the opinion.

         Justice Baer authored a Concurring Opinion. He fully joined the Majority's pronouncement, but wrote separately to suggest, "for purposes of uniformity in sentencing, " that courts tasked with resentencing juveniles convicted prior to the Miller decision should look to section 1102.1 for guidance in setting a defendant's minimum sentence and to "follow the policy determinations" encompassed in the statute. Id. at 300 (Baer, J., concurring).

         C. Resentencing

         On May 1, 2014, the sentencing court convened a second sentencing hearing before the Honorable Michael J. Koury (Judge Moran had since retired). The

         Commonwealth presented the testimony of Thomas Serbin, a Security Lieutenant at State Correctional Institution Retreat, where Batts was then housed. Lieutenant Serbin stated that Batts had been identified as being part of a security threat group based on Batts' admission when he entered the prison that he was a member of the Bloods, his continued association and interaction with other "validated" members of the Bloods while in prison, and items of contraband found in Batts' prison cell that the lieutenant indicated were associated with the Bloods. N.T., 5/1/2014, at 172-73, 179, 184, 188-94, 197-204. Delores Howell, Edwards' grandmother and primary caregiver from the age of six, provided victim impact testimony. See id. at 86-91.

         The Commonwealth further presented an updated report and testimony of Dr. Michals as an expert in forensic psychiatry. Id. at 42. Based upon his evaluations of Batts (both prior to trial and in preparation for the resentencing hearing) and his review of various records, which included the results of an examination and psychological testing conducted by Batts' expert, Dr. Frank Dattilio, it was Dr. Michals' opinion that Batts' personality "is developmental in nature" and will not change. Id. at 49. According to Dr. Michals, "Batts is who he is and it's the engine that drives his behavior." Id. at 50. Although Dr. Michals recognized that the psychological testing revealed that Batts "really is impulsive, " "has poor judgment" and "acting out behavior, " it was Dr. Michals' opinion that these traits are "just unfortunately part of who he is" and that this is his "biological genetic makeup." Id. at 50-51. Dr. Michals testified that it was his belief that people generally do not change as they age; that, "[c]haracteristics can change, but it's very difficult to make changes to the basic structure of our personality." Id. at 59; see also id. at 51, 60. He admitted, however, that he "can't say that they won't change, " as he "can't predict the future." Id. He could only conclude that it was "highly unlikely" that Batts would change. Id. at 71-72.

         At the time he evaluated Batts regarding his motion to transfer his case to juvenile court, it was Dr. Michals' opinion that Batts was not amenable to treatment in the juvenile system; seeing no changes in Batts' personality, he continued to hold that opinion at Batts' resentencing hearing. Id. at 57. Dr. Michals acknowledged, however, that Batts had not yet received any psychological treatment or counseling in the adult prison system, and that Batts had taken advantage of programs that had been made available to him. Id. at 50, 57, 72.

         Also consistent with Dr. Michals' prior opinion, he testified at the resentencing hearing that Batts "made a purposeful decision to go ahead and get involved in the crime." Id. at 51. While Dr. Michals recognized that Batts was following the instructions of a senior gang member, and the violence of that organization may have played a role in Batts' decision to commit the murder, Dr. Michals believed that Batts "knew what he was doing when he committed the crime. … He made that choice and decision and acted upon that choice and decision." Id. at 60-61. Dr. Michals agreed that Batts' childhood ‒ marked by physical abuse, parental neglect, and repeated moves within the foster care system during his early childhood and adolescence ‒ could have affected his decision making at the time of the murder, but in Dr. Michals' opinion, "it didn't, " as the gang simply provided him with "an option." Id. at 64, 67.

         Batts likewise presented the testimony and report of an expert ‒ forensic psychologist Dr. Dattilio ‒ at the resentencing hearing. Unlike Dr. Michals, Dr. Dattilio found Batts' tumultuous childhood to be highly significant in this matter. Id. at 99-100. Although Dr. Dattilio agreed with Dr. Michals that Batts knew that shooting and killing someone was wrong, he found that Batts' decision making was skewed by the absence of a traditional role model in his life during his early childhood. Dr. Dattilio opined that Batts thus lacked the ability to weigh his options and make an appropriate decision when he was directed by a senior gang member to do something he knew was wrong. Id. at 101-02, 156-57. According to Dr. Dattilio, the absence of "attachment bonds" with parents and family members when Batts was a young child affected his self-esteem and self-worth, resulting in "hardened personality characteristics, " and left him particularly vulnerable to gang involvement. Id. at 100, 104-05; see also id. at 105 ("[A]ntisocial behavior and activity … not only go[] hand in hand with the environment he was raised in, but then certainly … the gang which had become his family is oriented in that direction.").

         Further complicating Batts' decision making, in Dr. Dattilio's view, was Batts' age at the time of the shooting, which played "a major role":

At 14-years-old [sic] we're just forming our sense of self, our sense of use of judgment and reason. It's in the process of development as is the brain. We know that anatomically the brain still doesn't stop developing until an individual is sometimes beyond 21 years of age, so there's a lot of things with regard to his ability to use judgment, to use reason, assertiveness, sense of balancing out risks versus rewards, so on and so forth, so he was very, very vulnerable at that point.

Id. at 107-08. Factoring in Batts' low-average IQ with his young age and his difficult childhood, Dr. Dattilio opined that Batts' judgment was profoundly compromised at the time of the shooting. Id. at 112.

         Dr. Dattilio was also of the opinion that Batts' "level of sophistication[, ] which was not very high, " also affected his ability to make a sound decision. Id. at 108. While seemingly streetwise, Batts' judgment was clouded by the idea of "being part of a crowd" and gaining acceptance. Id. According to Dr. Dattilio, Batts did not appreciate "the shortcomings of having to put in work and doing what he was told or the consequences are serious." Id. In fact, despite the fact that Evans, his friend and fellow Bloods member, was jailed for criminal activity prior to Batts joining the Bloods, Dr. Dattilio stated that this did not "compute" for Batts. Id. at 109. To explain this ostensibly inexplicable disconnect, Dr. Dattilio reminded those in the courtroom, who had "level heads" and came from "environments that were in tact [sic] and balanced, " that Batts was of an entirely different mindset because of his age and the "horrible environment" from whence he came. Id.

         From the psychological testing he conducted, Dr. Dattilio concluded that Batts had matured since the initial mental status examination that was performed when Batts was a teenager. Id. at 104. It was Dr. Dattilio's opinion not only that Batts had the capacity to change, but he has exhibited that capacity in expressing genuine remorse for his actions. Id. at 110, 161. With therapy, Dr. Dattilio testified that Batts would be able to address "the disruptive attachment bonds" of his childhood and learn how to find new, healthy relationships and connections. Id. at 111. Dr. Dattilio further accepted Batts' statement to him that he was no longer a gang member ‒ in his view, the evidence adduced by Lieutenant Serbin to the contrary was unconvincing and unclear. Id. at 113-14, 145-53, 161.

         Batts also presented a sentencing memorandum from expert Dana L. Cook, M.S., Deputy Director of The Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. She concluded, based on her review of records, interviews she conducted with Batts and his family members (particularly as it relates to Batts' traumatic childhood experiences and his current level of maturity) and the brain science relied upon by the United States Supreme Court in Roper and its progeny, that Batts "has an extraordinary amount of potential to be a law-abiding member of society, [which] will surely be enhanced by a now stable and loving family." Dana Cook's Report, 12/31/2013, at 4. In her view, Batts' "potential for rehabilitation cannot be understated, " as her interactions with him show that "[h]e understands things now in [a] way he wasn't capable of at 14 years of age." Id., Addendum at 3.

         Batts' mother, Shaniqua Batts, testified regarding the positive changes she has already seen in her son. Id. at 165-67. Batts also testified, accepting responsibility for his actions, apologizing to Delores Howell, assuring the sentencing court that he has matured over the preceding decade, and denying that he continued to be a member of a gang. Id. at 169-71. His former high school principal, Gregory A. Troxell, sent an unsolicited letter to the sentencing court advocating for a term-of-years sentence for Batts, portraying Batts' actions on the night in question as out of character from the person he had known over the preceding several years. Id. at 80-82.

         Batts' prison record was also considered by the sentencing court. It revealed that Batts has been disciplined for five infractions throughout his post-sentence incarceration, only one of which was for a physical fight with another inmate during a basketball game in May 2010. Id. at 79, 118-20; N.T., 5/2/2014, at 34-35. Apart from several discipline-related suspensions, Batts has remained employed while in prison and participates in various sports, fitness and personal enrichment programs (including GED, leadership development, long-term offenders, violence prevention, resume creation and job application courses) offered to him there. N.T., 5/2/2014, at 33-34.

         On May 2, 2014, following its consideration of the entire record, the sentencing memoranda submitted by the parties, an October 2013 presentence investigation report, the various reports from the psychological evaluations to which Batts had been subjected over the life of the case, and the sentencing memorandum prepared by Dana Cook, the sentencing court provided a lengthy explanation of its findings. It indicated that in deciding the appropriate sentence for Batts, it took into account the general factors in section 9721(b) of the Sentencing Code, [7] the Miller factors and the factors identified in 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102.1(d), concluding that its sentencing decision required a "balancing of the factors" at issue. N.T., 5/2/2014, at 56.

          The sentencing court found the following to "weigh against leniency":

• "the nature and circumstances" of the crime, i.e., that Batts committed a premeditated murder and attempted murder of "two defenseless boys" to achieve a promotion within the gang;
• he acted alone in committing the killing;
• there was no justification for the crimes; the sentencing court found his assertion that he feared reprisal by Bradley to be incredible, and that his claim of peer pressure did not merit consideration as Batts "sought out and embraced the peer pressure by seeking membership in the Bloods gang";
• the victims were unarmed and unsuspecting teenagers;
• Batts failed to cooperate with police in that he "fled the state" and attempted to hide his identity when police located him, lied during the initial interrogation and only confessed when he realized the police already had evidence implicating him;
• the impact the crimes have had on Hilario, Edwards' family, and the community;
• the sentencing court's desire not to minimize the seriousness of the crimes;
• "the uncertainty of [Batts'] amenability to treatment, " noting "[a]lthough you may ultimately prove to be amenable to treatment, the experts have indicated that any rehabilitation will require years of psychotherapy"; and
• the need to protect the public from Batts because of the crimes committed, his "history of violence, aggression and disrespect for the law, " and the question of whether he could be amenable to treatment.

Id. at 56-60. As to factors weighing in favor of his capacity for change, the sentencing court found:

• Batts' "childhood experiences" ‒ including his repeated moves in the foster care system throughout his formative years, the absence of an attachment to a stable and trusted adult, his exposure to violence by his mother and in the foster care system, as well as his sexual victimization by his cousin ‒ all of which led him to seek out a cohesive and caring family, and made him vulnerable to the attractiveness of a street gang, which the sentencing court found suggested that he could "benefit from psychotherapy or other forms of rehabilitation";
• scientific studies concluding that juvenile offenders are less culpable than adults; however, the court found that Batts' age only slightly lessened his culpability here "because [his] crimes were not the product of recklessness, poor judgment, lack of foresight, susceptibility to peer pressure or weak impulse control, " and instead "were deliberate and premeditated acts";
• Batts' showing of remorse, recognition of the wrongfulness of his conduct, and compassion for his victims;
• although Batts admitted to underage drinking, marijuana use and selling drugs for the Bloods, he had no prior criminal record, generally did well academically and excelled at various sports;
• he is employed in prison, has taken classes on leadership and violence prevention, and engaged in pre-vocational training;
• he has a close relationship with his family and attempts to be a positive role model for his younger brother; and
• expert opinions that, given his age and the insights he has gained since committing the crimes, years of psychotherapy could improve his "psychological condition."

Id. at 60-63. The sentencing court did not consider the evidence that Batts may have continued his association with members of the Bloods gang, as it found there was no evidence that he engaged in any violent gang activity in prison. Id. at 63.

         The sentencing court found, "weighing all the factors[, ] … that the factors not in [Batts'] favor significantly outweigh the factors in his favor, " and that the crimes in question did not "reflect unfortunate yet transient immaturity." Id. at 64-65. Instead, the sentencing court found, "On the evening of February 7, 2006, you committed a calculated, callous and cold-blooded murder. You made yourself the judge, jury and executioner of Clarence Edwards and, if not for the grace of God, you would also have killed Corey Hilario." Id. at 66.

         Immediately thereafter, the sentencing court reinstituted a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for Batts' first-degree murder conviction, and further resentenced him to a concurrent term of ten to twenty years of incarceration for attempted murder. Id. at 67. Judge Koury then went on to recount how, after he decided that Batts should serve life without parole for the murder, he drove by the crime scene and replayed the events of February 7, 2006 in his head, imagining Delores Howell coming out to the porch and seeing her grandson with two gunshot wounds to his head. Id. at 68.

         D. Second Superior Court Appeal

         A divided panel of the Superior Court affirmed the judgment of sentence. Of relevance to the case at bar, the majority opinion, authored by then-Judge (now Justice) Mundy, found Batts' claim that the evidence was insufficient to permit him to be subjected to a life-without-parole sentence was a challenge to the discretionary aspects of sentencing. Commonwealth v. Batts, 125 A.3d 33, 42 (Pa. Super. 2015). Because Batts failed to file a concise statement of reasons for the Superior Court to review the discretionary aspects of his sentence, as required Rule 2119(f) of the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure, and the Commonwealth objected to this omission, the majority concluded that Batts had waived the claim. Id. at 44. The majority declined Batts' request to impose a burden of proof upon the Commonwealth seeking to impose a life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile or to apply a heightened standard of appellate review, concluding that the requested relief would have to come from the General Assembly or from this Court pursuant to our rulemaking power. Id. at 43; see Pa. Const. art. V, § 10(c). It further found meritless his claim that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder are entitled to the same constitutional protections as adults facing the death penalty. Batts, 125 A.3d at 44-45.

         Former Justice (now Senior Judge) Fitzgerald disagreed with the finding of waiver of Batts' sentencing claim based upon his failure to comply with Rule 2119(f), giving three reasons for his dissent. First, murder is not a "felony or misdemeanor" subject to the discretionary review process. See 18 Pa.C.S. § 106(a) (listing three types of crimes: murders, felonies, and misdemeanors). As the jurisdictional requirements for the Superior Court to consider the discretionary aspects of sentencing in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9781(b) apply only to felonies and misdemeanors, he found a sentence for a murder conviction was not "subject to the discretionary review process." Batts, 125 A.3d at 49 (Fitzgerald, J., concurring and dissenting); see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9781(b) ("The defendant or the Commonwealth may file a petition for allowance of appeal of the discretionary aspects of a sentence for a felony or a misdemeanor to the appellate court that has initial jurisdiction for such appeals."). Second, the sentence for a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder does not arise from the Sentencing Code, thus further removing appellate review of the sentence from the strictures of section 9781(b). Id. at 49-50 (citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 9781(b) (providing that review of a challenge to the discretionary aspects of sentencing requires the petitioning party to show a substantial question that the sentence imposed is not appropriate under the Sentencing Code)). Third, Judge Fitzgerald believed that the issue under consideration, involving the imposition of a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile, was "a sufficiently extraordinary legal question to warrant review despite a procedural default." Id. at 50.

         Judge Fitzgerald would have decided the claim on its merits and, in so doing, would have concluded that the decision to resentence Batts to life without the possibility of parole was unsupported by both the record and the prevailing law. See id. at 49-54. In his view, the sentencing court improperly "framed its choice as two extremes: the Commonwealth's recommendation that [Batts] be sentenced to life without parole, and [Batts'] request for a sentence of twenty-five years to life as suggested by 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102.1." Id. at 54 (citing N.T., 5/2/2014, at 56). The sentencing court gave no meaningful consideration to imposing a minimum term of incarceration above the twenty-five-year minimum sentence it rejected. Id. Further, according to Judge Fitzgerald, the sentencing court's belief that a sentence less than life without parole would constitute an act of "leniency" represents a misunderstanding of "the nature of our indeterminate sentencing scheme." Id.; see Commonwealth v. Daniel, 243 A.2d 400, 403 (Pa. 1968) ("the maximum sentence is the real sentence … the only portion of the sentence which has legal validity").

         III. Issues Raised

         Batts filed a petition for allowance of appeal to this Court, and we granted his request to answer the following questions:

1. In Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life without parole for juveniles [], and instructed that the discretionary imposition of this sentence should be "uncommon" and reserved for the "rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption."
i. There is currently no procedural mechanism to ensure that juvenile [life without parole] will be "uncommon" in Pennsylvania. Should this Court exercise its authority under the Pennsylvania Constitution to promulgate procedural safeguards including (a) a presumption against juvenile [life without parole]; (b) a requirement for competent expert testimony; and (c) a "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of proof?
ii. The lower court reviewed [Batts'] sentence under the customary abuse of discretion standard. Should the Court reverse the lower court's application of this highly deferential standard in light of Miller?
2. In Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the basis for its individualized sentencing requirement was Graham's comparison of juvenile [life without parole] to the death penalty. [Batts] received objectively less procedural due process than an adult facing capital punishment. Should the ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.