PHILADELPHIA — A Philadelphia man imprisoned since 1975 asked Monday to be released in the wake of last week's Supreme Court ruling that called mandatory life terms for juveniles unconstitutional.
Tyrone Jones' petition is among the first filed in the wake of the court's 5-4 decision. The 56-year-old has served nearly four decades since his arrest at age 16 in a North Philadelphia street slaying.
Pennsylvania prisons have nearly a quarter of the nation's approximately 2,100 teen lifers because state sentencing laws give judges only two options for anyone convicted of first-degree murder: a death sentence or life in prison without parole. Also, Pennsylvania juveniles of any age can be tried as adults.
Some 13-year-old murder suspects have later been sentenced to life in prison, according to Marsha Levick, a co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. Others took plea deals for a life sentence rather than face the death penalty, which was on the table for juvenile offenders until a 2005 Supreme Court ruling.
"The circumstances under which a life-without-parole sentence would be appropriate should be uncommon," Levick said.
Several states are considering comprehensive reviews of such cases. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are expected to wade into the issue at a July 12 Senate committee hearing.
Philadelphia courts turned out at least 250 of the approximately 480 juvenile lifers now housed in Pennsylvania, Levick said. The sentences date back to the 1950s, and cover every decade since then.
Pennsylvania Innocence Project lawyers also hope to overturn Jones' conviction. They say he was convicted based solely on two contradictory police statements — and despite contrary ballistics evidence and witness descriptions.
Jones was arrested in May 1973 outside his home, nine blocks from the murder scene, after police saw him wearing a red skull cap similar to the one worn by the shooter. He had a .25-caliber firearm in his waistband.
Under questioning by police, Jones admitted shooting at an unnamed boy while he was with his friend, Michael Long. While still in custody 12 hours later, police learned the victim, Henry Harrison, had been killed by a .22-caliber gun. Both Jones and Long then said that Long had a .22-caliber weapon and had fired at Harrison.
No witnesses ever linked them to the suspected gang-related slaying, an Innocence Project lawyer said.
"Under duress ... we will say a lot of things that aren't necessarily true to end the interrogation, especially a 16-year-old," said lawyer Hayes Hunt, who filed Jones' appeal as part of his pro bono work with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
Jones was tried, convicted and sent to prison in June 1975, four months before his 18th birthday. He had no prior arrests, but the judge had no choice but to sentence him to life without parole. Long was acquitted and now denies that he or Jones were involved, according to Jones' lawyers.
They said their client had become resigned to his fate over the years, but is now adjusting to both the new fight over his conviction and the Supreme Court's rejection of his sentence.
The Supreme Court has been whittling away at the harshest juvenile sentences, outlawing the death penalty in 2005 and life terms for non-fatal crimes in 2010. In the most recent ruling, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that judges need the discretion to weigh each case individually. The ruling affects inmates in 26 states.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, which handled Jones' case, does not expect every juvenile life sentence to be overturned.
"The ruling will affect different defendants differently, and we will respond accordingly depending on the case," spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson said.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project represents three other clients who, like Jones, have been in prison for juvenile slayings they say they did not commit.
"What's different about our clients is they also have very strong innocence claims, in addition to the fact their sentences are now unconstitutional," project lawyer Charlotte Whitmore said.