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Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Illegal Juvenile LWOP Sentence Undermined Validity of Later Conviction

by Douglas Ankney 

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that an illegal mandatory sentence of life without parole (“LWOP”) imposed upon a juvenile undermined the validity of a later conviction for assault by a life prisoner predicated on the LWOP.

In 1970, James Henry Cobbs was 17 years old when he participated in a robbery wherein James Brislin was stabbed to death by Michael Perkins. Cobbs was prosecuted under a felony-murder theory and convicted by a jury. The Allegheny Court of Common Pleas sentenced him to the mandatory LWOP.

On December 18, 1978, the then 25-year-old Cobb stabbed another prisoner in the forehead during an altercation at SCI-Graterford. He was prosecuted under Section 2704 of the Crimes Code, and a jury convicted him of “assault by a life prisoner.” Bound by Section 2704, the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas sentenced him to another LWOP to be run concurrently with his previous LWOP.

Approximately 34 years later, on August 20, 2012, Cobbs filed two petitions pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), 42 Pa. C.S. §§ 9541-9546. His PCRA petition filed in Allegheny County challenged his first LWOP imposed upon him as a juvenile. His second PCRA petition was filed in Montgomery County. It challenged the validity of the LWOP imposed under Section 2704 of the Crimes Code.

 In the Allegheny PCRA petition, Cobbs argued that his LWOP was unlawful. In Miller v.  Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’” However, the Allegheny County Court took no action on the PCRA petition until March 22, 2016 when counsel was granted permission to supplement the petition. Counsel did so on December 30, 2016. By this time, the U.S. Supreme Court had decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), which made the holding in Miller retroactive to LWOP sentences imposed upon juveniles before Miller was decided.

Meanwhile, the Montgomery County Court ordered that the PCRA petition filed in that court be held in abeyance until resolution of the PCRA petition in Allegheny County. 

The Allegheny County Court agreed with Cobbs. At a resentencing hearing, Cobbs was resentenced to 40 years to life imprisonment with credit for time served, making him immediately eligible for parole. However, the Montgomery County Court later dismissed Cobbs’ petition as untimely. 

The Superior Court affirmed the dismissal, albeit on different grounds. Cobbs’ argument was that his LWOP sentence from Allegheny County was the predicate offense the Commonwealth had relied upon to convict him of assault by a life prisoner under Section 2704 of the Crimes Code. Because that predicate sentence was an illegal sentence void ab initio, he was not a prisoner sentenced to life at the time he was prosecuted and as required by Section 2704. Further, his current sentence of 40 years to life did not satisfy the required element of Section 2704. The Superior Court rejected Cobbs’ argument and affirmed the dismissal. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Cobbs an appeal. 

The Court observed that when a petitioner alleges and proves “the right asserted is a constitutional right that was recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States or Supreme Court of Pennsylvania after the [one-year] time period provided in this section and has been held by that court to apply retroactively” the petitioner had 60 days from the date the claim could have been presented to submit his petition. 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9545 (b)(1), 9545 (b)(2). Miller was decided on June 25, 2012; thus, Cobbs’ petition was timely filed on August 20, 2012. [Note: the 60-day time period has now been amended to one year.]

Turning to the merits of Cobbs’ petition, the Court observed that in Commonwealth v. McIntyre, 232 A.3d 609 (Pa. 2020), the defendant had been convicted back in 2012 of failing to register as a sex offender under 18 Pa.C.S. § 4915. In 2013, the Court had concluded in Commonwealth v. Neiman, 84 A.3d 603 that § 4915 was unconstitutional. The Court reversed McIntyre’s judgment even though his conviction predated Neiman on the ground that upholding his conviction and sentence would “violate principles of due process, in as much as there was no validly enacted statute on which the Commonwealth could base Appellant’s conviction.” McIntyre

In the instant case, Cobbs had been convicted of violating Section 2704 of the Crimes Code, which required that the accused be under a sentence of death or life imprisonment. The Allegheny County Court had found, under Miller and Alabama, that Cobbs’ life sentence was void ab initio—meaning it was never a legal or valid sentence. Therefore, the Allegheny County Court resentenced Cobbs to 40 years to life in prison. But Crimes Code § 2704 required the accused to be under a life sentence that did not include a possibility of parole. Accordingly, the Court vacated the Superior Court’s affirming Montgomery County Court’s order dismissing Cobbs’ PCRA petition. The Court further vacated the Montgomery County Court’s order and vacated Cobbs’ conviction and sentence under Section 2704. See:Commonwealth v. Cobbs, 256 A.3d 1192 (Pa. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Cobbs