At the age when most teenagers get their driver’s license and go on first dates, Scott Walker stood before an Allegheny County judge, who told him that day would be his last outside of a prison. At 16, Walker was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
About a year before that, Walker bought a chrome-plated revolver from a “drug fiend” he knew. On July 24, 1994, he rode his bicycle with the weapon on him to Manchester Elementary School in the North Side of Pittsburgh. There, he found 23-year-old Randy Hawkins on the basketball court. Walker later said Hawkins was one of four men who assaulted him downtown earlier that summer, although police said they had no knowledge of the alleged ambush, according to a 1995 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.
Walker was 15 when he pulled the trigger. He killed Hawkins with two shots.
“At the time, I was in a weird state of mind, from drugs, being brainwashed with gang thinking, and trying to be someone I wasn’t,” Walker writes from the State Correctional Institute at Somerset. “It’s strange because I do know what led to the shooting, but a lot of that day is still confusing to me for some reason.” He writes that he felt “numb” to guns and violence, having grown up where they are common.
Walker, now 37, says he is haunted by the day he killed Randy Hawkins. “I always think about my crime,” he writes. “It’s burned in my memory. I try to play [it] over and over in hopes it would change but when I wake it’s always the same.”
The crime will never change but Walker’s sentence will, eventually. According to a state Department of Corrections list, he is one of 514 “juvenile lifers” in Pennsylvania who could be affected by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Last January, Montgomery v. Louisiana overturned the sentences of convicts serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed before the age of 18. In 2012, Miller v. Alabama dubbed the practice a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.” Montgomery went a step further, deciding the ruling should be applied retroactively.
Progress in Pennsylvania, the state with the greatest number of juvenile lifers in the country by far, has been painfully slow. As of Dec. 19, 41 have been resentenced; 10 were released as a result. The state has no timetable for the rest.
Tom Farrell, attorney for Walker, says his client’s sentence has been formally overturned but he doesn’t know when he will be resentenced.
This leaves Walker with oceans of time to mull over his situation in a daily battle against shame and anger. “Trying to keep the balance might be the hardest thing I’ve encountered yet,” he writes. “I still don’t know how to do it. I just try to stop from losing my mind.”
Blanche Walker, who still lives in Manchester, says she doesn’t see her son much. Complications from diabetes make travel difficult.
Decades ago, the disease, combined with asthma, knocked her out of the workforce. A single mom, she earned money and a sense of purpose as a foster parent. She adopted six of the children she took in. Scott, the youngest of her three biological children, “was a perfect kid, always helping out with the younger kids,” she remembers.
Scott played basketball, soccer and hockey. Trophies cluttered his childhood bedroom. “He and his brother had a competition to see who could get more,” Blanche Walker recalls.
Manchester was changing then, she says. Young men began carrying drugs and guns. Scott started hanging out with older boys. She lost track of him as she cared for a rotating roster of foster children. One day, she saw a strange car speed down a street and run a stop sign. A neighbor told her, “You know that was your son, right?” “I didn’t even know he drove,” she recalls.
Blanche Walker remembers the day of Randy Hawkins’ murder. Detectives came to her door and asked, “Do you know where your son is?” Everything after that is a blank. “I can’t remember the next few months,” she says. “I blocked them out.”
A uniquely American, especially Pennsylvanian practice
Permanently jailing children and teenagers had been an exclusively American practice with a particularly extensive history in Pennsylvania. A 2012 University of San Francisco Center for Law and Global Justice report found that the United States was the only country in the world that sentenced juveniles to life without parole. Most nations either limit juvenile sentences to 20 years or reduce the degree of the crime for juveniles.
Pennsylvania has more than 20 percent of the 2,300 convicts impacted by the Montgomery case. The reason is that the state was once fairly unique in sentencing first-degree murderers to life without parole. Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project and author of A Return to Justice: Rethinking our Approach to Juveniles in the System, says that sentence became “politically popular” in the 1980s. At the same time, states passed “adult time for adult crime” laws, eliminating protections or reductions of sentences for minors.
On both accounts, Pennsylvania had a head start on other states. “That’s been the law in Pennsylvania for more than a hundred years,” says Bradley Bridge, an attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia who has represented several juvenile murder suspects.
By the time the Supreme Court overturned mandatory juvenile life sentences, Pennsylvania had the largest population of such prisoners, some of them in jail since the 1950s and 1960s. The task of deciding new sentences for more than 500 juvenile lifers has been doled out to judges, defense attorneys and the post-conviction units of district attorneys’ offices across the Commonwealth. The people involved in this effort have expressed frustration and confusion about even which rules to follow.
“No man’s land”
Mike Manko, spokesperson for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office says of juvenile lifer cases, “They’ll all be resentenced,” but he did not give a timeline. When asked about the Attorney General office’s plan for resentencing juvenile lifers, spokesperson Jeffrey A. Johnson said, “[W]e are waiting for further guidance from the [state] judiciary.”
Specifically, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal in Commonwealth v. Batts, a case it decided in 2013. In Batts, attorneys for several juvenile lifers challenged their sentences under the Supreme Court’s Miller ruling. In another case, the state’s highest court decided that if the nation’s highest court wasn’t applying its ban on life-without-parole for juveniles retroactively, Pennsylvania shouldn’t either. That ruling needs to be reassessed under Montgomery, and the state Supreme Court’s decision will presumably set guidelines on how Pennsylvania’s glut of juvenile lifers will be resentenced. Earlier this month, the court began hearing arguments in the Batts appeal.
Juvenile lifers who have been back to court have faced judges with vastly different ideas of how long they can and must keep them in prison, some of whom seem to ignore Montgomery completely.
Angela Marinucci is the youngest of the “Greensburg Six,” the group convicted in the 2010 kidnapping, torture and killing of Jennifer Daugherty, a woman with developmental disabilities. Marinucci, 17 at the time, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Her attorney, Michael DeMatt, thought that recent Supreme Court decisions would affect her. He was wrong. In October, an appellate court upheld Marinucci’s life sentence, in seeming defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision.
DeMatt says the courts don’t have new marching orders from the state on how to apply the January Montgomery ruling, so appeals filed between the 2012 Miller ruling and now are judged on the rules the state handed down after Miller in the 2013 Batts case, they were told. “We obviously think this is a misreading of the Batts case,” says DeMatt, who plans to appeal.
“I would agree there is a lot of confusion,” says DeMatt. “Right now, it’s a no man’s land.”
Jeffrey Cristina assumed the Montgomery decision would mean his quick release. He was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole in 1977. When Cristina was 16, he went with two older boys to burglarize an elderly man’s house in Lawrenceville. The man tried to fight them off and the man was beaten to death.
“Of course, I feel guilty about it,” Cristina wrote from SCI-Somerset. “I never did anything like that before, and there isn’t any reason why I should have gone that night.”
At his August resentencing, Judge Anthony Mariani called Cristina a model inmate, one who pursued education while serving time and mentored other prisoners to stay out of trouble as he did, according to a Post-Gazette article from his hearing. In 1993, the Board of Pardons recommended him for a pardon by the governor. The Post-Gazette also published an editorial in August arguing for Cristina’s release.
Yet Mariani this summer said his hands were tied by the sentencing laws Pennsylvania passed after the Miller decision. In 2013, state lawmakers decided that for juvenile convicts ages 15 and older the sentence for first-degree murder would be 35 years to life. For those younger than 15, it’s 25 years to life. The “to life” part would mean that anyone who commits a murder as a juvenile will have to pass through the Parole Board to be released.
State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says those sentencing rules came from the state House attached to a semi-related bill (as business in a legislative body often does). He says he disagreed with them.
Greenleaf objects to mandatory sentences. “To me, that takes power out of the judge’s hands and the judge knows more about the case than anyone.” But Greenleaf knew he didn’t have the votes in the House or his own chamber to change the sentences. State Rep. Ron Marsico, R-105th District, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Cristina’s new sentence essentially kicked his fate to the Parole Board, which released him four months later, on Dec. 3. He says he isn’t sure Mariani was obligated to add a “to life” to his maximum possible sentence. “I think he was misinformed,” Cristina wrote in September.
He may be right. Another Allegheny County judge, Joseph Williams, has since resentenced Regis Seskey, convicted of a 1992 murder he committed at age 17, to 13 to 26 years. He apparently did not see “to life” as a requirement.
The typical “life” of a juvenile lifer
There weren’t many happy times in Jeffrey Cristina’s childhood. “There was a lot of physical abuse in the household,” he writes. “My dad was a[n] alcoholic.” He and his four siblings “all got beat along with [his] mother pretty regularly.”
According to Ashley Nellis of the Sentencing Project, this not an uncommon starting point for juvenile lifers. “Usually, they come from low-income, struggling families,” she says. Sexual and physical abuse are frequent. Many, like Cristina, commit economically motivated crimes with older defendants and those plans spiral out of control and result in a homicide.
Once in prison, there is a period of lashing out over their confinement and fighting off older inmates, which can result in a litany of infractions, Nellis says.
This is Scott Walker’s experience. “I had to celly up with people who probably thought about f***ing, killing or using me for something,” he writes of his life at 16. “I was forced to be an adult the moment the system fed me to the wolves. So you have a couple of options at that time and the one I chose was to be the aggressor in any and all circumstances. I refused to be a victim.” He says he “did years in the hole” and “became harder and harder and more detached from the outside world.”
But juvenile lifers often mellow with age and become “some of the most docile inmates,” Nellis says. “They realize this is their house now. They tend to be mentors to younger prisoners.”
This a one way Walker tries to make something of his life. “All I can do now is try to help younger ones make different choices and let them know [there are] other outlets to our anger,” he writes.
This capacity for change is one reason Nellis opposes life sentences for juveniles. “Obviously, public safety is important to everyone,” she says, “but there should be a second look at the person 15 or 20 years down the road, and we need to factor in what was influencing the person at the time, because juveniles are more susceptible to influence. They do not have a fully developed brain.”
“I can’t escape my reality”
Like Scott Walker, Randy Hawkins was an athlete. He played basketball and football at Langley High School. After graduation, he worked as a waiter at the DoubleTree hotel downtown and lived with his single mother in Manchester. “He was planning his future,” recalls Gwendolyn Hawkins. “He told me, ‘Mama, I don’t have enough money to move out and have kids. I need a better job.’”
She vividly recalls that Sunday in 1994. Police called the senior home where she worked as an attendant and told her to her to get to Allegheny General Hospital immediately. Her son was dead by the time she arrived.
At Walker’s sentencing, Blanche Walker and Gwendolyn Hawkins hugged each other while weeping, according to the 1995 Post-Gazette article. They haven’t kept in contact, but Manchester is small and the two ended up at the same wedding years ago.
Still, Gwendolyn Hawkins has no sympathy for Scott Walker and says she finds comfort in his misery. “I don’t think he should get out,” Hawkins says. “He should suffer and I am glad he’s suffering.”
Walker says if he were to be released, he would go to Washington state. His family visited uncles there when he was a child. It was one of his few family trips. He recalls the mountains and the wilderness. “I don’t think I am really a city person. … I’m more of an outdoor person by heart,” he writes. “I don’t want to be around a lot of people no more.”
Until his second day in court — whenever that is — he says he keeps busy with his job in Somerset’s HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) unit and his favorite leisure activity of listening to the radio.
“That can keep my mind off things for a good part of the day,” he writes. “But I can’t escape my reality. I done something horrible and will pay for it for the rest of my life if I’m free or not. That’s my truth and it will never change.”
Graphics by Natasha Khan of PublicSource. Point Park University students Ashley Murray and Nicole Pampena entered the demographic data for each juvenile lifer based off of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections data from its Inmate Locator. PublicSource managing editor Halle Stockton analyzed the data.
Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who has written for Mental Floss, Vice, Nerve and the Village Voice. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.