MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This past June, the Supreme Court struck down laws that require life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. The decision touched off a flurry of activity, and many states are now watching Pennsylvania. The deadline there to request a new sentencing hearing is one week away. As Elizabeth Fiedler reports from member station WHYY, lawyers are advising about 500 Pennsylvania prisoners to file requests.
ELIZABETH FIEDLER, BYLINE: Bradley Bridge has received more than 200 letters from prisoners in the past two months asking about the Supreme Court ruling.
BRADLEY BRIDGE: The letters are all pretty much the same. They're saying, I've heard about this case from the United States Supreme Court. Does it apply to me, and what do I need to do?
FIEDLER: Bridge is with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Like other juvenile lifer supporters, he believes the ruling applies to inmates already behind bars. For those people, Bridge says, the clock is ticking.
BRIDGE: If there's a new case from the United States Supreme Court that renders what happened before - sentencing or a conviction - invalid, under Pennsylvania law, you have a window of 60 days to petition the court to reopen your case. Other states have much longer.
FIEDLER: While juvenile lifers and their advocates are rushing to beat the deadline, Ruth "Margo" Gee continues to wait. For her, the Supreme Court decision is personal. Her brother, Tyrone Jones, has lived behind bars for nearly four decades. He was convicted of first-degree murder for a fatal shooting in north Philadelphia that happened when he was 16. Gee says she believes her brother's claim that he's innocent.
RUTH MARGO GEE: He's lost his life. He was 16. He has no idea what life is other than prison.
FIEDLER: Gee says her brother is a good guy who deserves his freedom. On a recent trip, Gee says, it was clear news of the Supreme Court ruling had permeated prison walls.
GEE: The whole place is excited. Everybody is going around: Congratulations, Ty. Go, Ty. And he's just got a lot of hope now. He had hope before, but now he's like: There's light. I mean, he knows it might not be tomorrow.
FIEDLER: There's no guarantee Tyrone Jones will get a new sentencing hearing at all.
SCOTT BURNS: We'll fight it case by case. I don't think it is or should be retroactive.
FIEDLER: That's Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.
BURNS: Families of victims of juvenile murderers are coordinating. They're doing everything they can to motivate prosecutors and others to challenge each and every one of these cases to make sure that the conviction is preserved and the sentence is preserved.
FIEDLER: Burns says, in thinking about the prisoners, it's important to remember the horrific crimes.
BURNS: We're talking about, you know, somebody two weeks short of their 18th birthday that carjacks a mother, shoots her in the head, drives down the road, before police can get there has shot her 8- and 7-year-old son and daughter in the head. And yet they call him a child, and they say it's cruel and unusual punishment that this child would be subjected to the rest of his life in prison.
FIEDLER: Because Pennsylvania inmates face a short deadline to seek new sentencing hearings and there are many questions about who could receive them, other states are watching Pennsylvania closely. And even if Pennsylvania's current juvenile lifers are granted new sentencing hearings, the Juvenile Law Center's Marsha Levick says there will still be a lot of work to do on their cases.
MARSHA LEVICK: In a way, these new sentencing hearings will likely look something like the penalty phase in death penalty cases, where we expect that these individuals will have the opportunity, certainly, to present mitigating evidence of what they have experienced, what their lives have been like in prison. Individuals would be able to testify on their behalf.
FIEDLER: So even if someone like Tyrone Jones is awarded an opportunity for a new sentencing hearing, it could take months or maybe even years for him to get his new day in court. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler in Philadelphia.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.