A U.S. Supreme Court ruling will give nine convicted local murderers such as Scott Schroat, who was found guilty of strangling a 5-year-old girl in 1992, an opportunity to get out of jail.
The court ruled last week in Montgomery v. Louisiana in a 6-3 decision that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment. That means Schroat, who was convicted as a 17-year-old, and other murderers locked up as minors, will get a chance to have his sentence cut short.
“It has the potential, for those already convicted of first-degree murder, to potentially be released,” Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri told Watchdog.
Daneri was unclear if his office or the state parole board would be responsible for those re-sentencing hearings, but said it’s something that should be handled by the DA. The cases will not be retried; the new hearings would affect only the sentences attached to those guilty verdicts. Any other sentences being served would be unaffected.
“I don’t think this would necessarily be a parole board issue,” Daneri said. “My thought is you’re essentially going to have a sentencing hearing. It’s as if the person just got convicted last week or last month and today you’re going to go in front of a judge and instead of it being absolutely, no doubt about it, life without parole, there’s now going to be more input from both sides.”
Prior to last week’s ruling, first-degree murder cases involving a minor in Pennsylvania came with a mandatory life sentence without parole. As such, defense lawyers didn’t have much to argue at sentencing because the terms were automatic.
“Now the prosecution, assuming that many of us would continue to seek that life sentence for the individual, we now would want to put forth a lot of evidence or something that the judge would look upon favorably in our minds to re-sentence them to life,” Daneri said. “The defense would do the opposite.”
In 2012, Miller v. Alabama invalidated mandatory life sentences for minors. Last week’s Montgomery decision retroactively enforces that ruling, allowing for the re-sentencing of convicted murderers.
There are currently nine men in Pennsylvania prisons who were convicted of murder in Erie as minors ,and more than 1,000 nationwide.
“The crime is the same,” Daneri said. “It’s still first-degree murder. The difference is that now Pennsylvania says for those that have committed the crime as juveniles, if you’re convicted of first-degree murder, the sentencing scheme is no longer absolutely life without parole. It’s now a 35-year minimum to life without parole. Does that apply now to 65-year-olds? That is a question that needs to be answered.”
Two of the Erie killers are now in the their 50s. Schroat is 40 years old. He was 17 when Erie police charged him with killing 5-year-old Lila Ebright. Her body was found in a dumpster and he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.
Besides Schroat, the other Erie cases that could be affected are:
— Allen Brown, who was 17 when he was charged with shooting and killing 22-year-old Michael Bibbs in Erie in 1976.
— Raynard Green was 17 when Erie police charged him with killing 89-year-old Harriet Mikielski with a blunt object during a 1978 robbery.
— Antonio Howard and Ricardo Noble were both 15 when they were charged with killing cab driver Richard Stevens during a 1991 robbery.
— Michael Crosby was 17 when Erie police charged him with shooting and killing 19-year-old Demetrius Johnson in 1996.
— Neil Simpson was 16 when he was charged in the May 1999 stabbing of 18-year-old Martin Ondreako. Simpson was convicted of first-degree murder and is now 33.
— James House was 17 when Erie police charged him with killing 21-year-old Eddie Outlaw in 1999. House was convicted of first-degree murder and is now 34.
— Mack D’Juan Hill was 17 when Erie police charged him in the shooting death of 18-year-old Darryl Dickerson Jr. during a 2001 robbery.
“We have work to do here,” Daneri said. “But that’s OK. In the interest of our victims’ families, they now unfortunately have to relive it, and we’ll relive it with them and again advocate for a fair sentence, which a number of years ago was life without parole.”