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Henry v. 61 Pa. Stat. 331.21 (1941)

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 15, 2017

61 PA. STAT. § 331.21 (1941), Defendant.


          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         Anthony Henry is a state prisoner serving, without the possibility of parole, a life sentence for first degree murder, a crime he committed as an adult. He seeks declaratory and injunctive relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983 contending that the Pennsylvania statute governing parole, interpreted by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Batts, 66 A.3d 286 (Pa.2013) following the United States Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), is unconstitutionally vague.[1] For the reasons set forth below, the Court dismisses Henry's Complaint with prejudice.



         Prior to 2012, Pennsylvania law provided that “[a] person who has been convicted of a murder of the first degree or of murder of a law enforcement officer of the first degree shall be sentenced to death or to a term of life imprisonment” without the possibility of parole. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1102(a)(1). Those convicted of second degree murder also received life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. See id. § 1102(b). Under the Juvenile Act, murder is excluded from the definition of delinquent acts generally adjudicated by juvenile courts. See generally 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 6302, 6322(a). In 2005, the Supreme Court concluded in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005), that the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution of juvenile offenders. Thus, prior to 2012, juveniles in Pennsylvania convicted of first or second degree murder automatically received a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

         In 2012, the Supreme Court held “that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479 (2012). Relying on Roper and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Court reiterated “that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.” Miller, 567 U.S. at 471. The Court stated:

Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, we explained, “they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.” Graham, 560 U.S. at 68. Those cases relied on three significant gaps between juveniles and adults. First, children have a “‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, '” leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Roper, 543 U.S. at 569. Second, children “are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures, ” including from their family and peers; they have limited “contro[l] over their own environment” and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. Ibid. And third, a child's character is not as “well formed” as an adult's; his traits are “less fixed” and his actions less likely to be “evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].” Id. at 570.

Miller, 567 U.S. at 471 (internal parallel citations omitted) (alterations in original).

         Pennsylvania's Parole Code prohibits any person who is sentenced to life imprisonment from being released on parole. 61 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6137(a)(1). In Batts, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was presented with the question of how to handle cases involving juveniles who had been convicted of murder prior to Miller and subjected to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole. 66 A.3d 286 (Pa. 2013). The Batts court observed that juveniles convicted of murder could still be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in accordance with Miller after an individualized assessment of the factors discussed in Miller. Id. at 296. Juvenile defendants for whom the sentencing court determined a life-without-parole sentence is inappropriate would still receive a mandatory maximum sentence of life imprisonment, but the sentencing court should also determine a minimum sentence for those offenders, thereby “striking the prohibition against paroling an individual sentenced to serve life in prison in section 6137(a)(1) as applied to these offenders.” Commonwealth v. Batts, 163 A.3d 410, 421 (Pa. 2017) (citing Batts, 66 A.3d at 296-97).[2]


         Henry contends that Batts “gave new interpretation to the [Parole] Code. Under the Court's new interpretation the Board may (selectively) and albeit, outside the commutation framework, release on parole convicts serving life imprisonment.” (Compl. at 2.) He argues, however, that “[i]f the Parole Code is to be given any meaning at all, it must be that the Legislature intended to deny life sentenced convicts parole, leaving the prerogative of mercy to the [Governor] through ordinance of the Constitution.” (Id.) Henry alleges that “the executive's power to pardon expressly prohibit[s] the [Parole] Board from paroling convicts serving life imprisonment, notwithstanding Batts.” (Id. at 2-3.) According to Henry, “[t]he Board, in cahoots with Batts, intruded upon the Governor's power to commute sentences.” (Id. at 3.)

         Henry argues that “[u]nder controlling federal law, the Board cannot treat similarly situated individuals differently with no rational basis.” (Id.) He contends that “[s]tate and federal equal Protection Clauses forbid the Parole Code, see 61 Pa. C.S. § 331.21 (the board is prohibited from releasing convicts serving life imprisonment), from extending parole review to some first and second degree murderers but denying it to others.” (Id. at 6.) He specifically references that “[t]here are currently dozens of convicts across the Commonwealth initially sentenced as juveniles to mandatory life who have been paroled or are being considered for parole.” (Id. at 6-7.) Henry argues that the Parole Code “does not distinguish between one convict sentenced to ‘life' and another, ” and that“[t]he current dual interpretation of the Code violates the state and federal equal protection prohibition against treating similarly situated individuals different[ly].” (Id. at 7.) He further contends that the Parole Code, as applied, denies substantive due process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. (Id. at 9.)


         The Court grants Henry leave to proceed in forma pauperis because it appears that he is not capable of paying the fees to commence this civil action.[3] Accordingly, the Court must dismiss Henry's complaint if it is frivolous or fails to state a claim. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)-(ii). A complaint is frivolous if it “lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). It is legally baseless if “based on an indisputably meritless legal theory, ” Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1085 (3d Cir. 1995), and factually baseless “when the facts alleged rise to the level of the irrational or the wholly incredible.” Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33 (1992). Whether a complaint fails to state a claim under § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is governed by the same standard applicable to motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), see Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d Cir. 1999), which requires the Court to determine whether the complaint contains “sufficient factual ...

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