A state appeals court will hear arguments Tuesday in the case of an Allegheny County woman serving a life sentence without parole. Avis Lee was convicted of second-degree homicide in 1981, after participating in an attempted robbery that resulted in a shooting death.
Lee was 18 at the time of the offense, but she argues that, like many 18-year-olds, she was still a juvenile developmentally. The Supreme Court has ruled that it’s unconstitutional to automatically sentence minors to life without parole.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala argues in a brief filed in May that the court defined juveniles as anyone under the age of 18. But Lee counters that, rather than set a clear cut-off, the court extended protections to defendants who possess “characteristics of youth” at the time of their offense.
“There’s been a great development in research around people who are aged 18 to 21 and what their developmental characteristics are like,” Lee’s attorney, Quinn Couzzens, said. “Consistently, almost universally, that [research shows] they’re much more like people who are younger than 18 rather than adults.”
In their brief, Lee’s attorneys argue that, developmentally, many 18-year-olds are “adolescent children [who] are categorically distinct from fully-developed adults in their decision-making abilities, degree of maturation, and their limited ability to extricate themselves from negative peer-influences or a dysfunctional and abusive home.”
The District Attorney's office declined to comment, but contends in its brief that the research Lee’s attorneys cite hasn't concluded whether the law should raise the age limit for who’s considered a minor above 18.
Under Pennsylvania law, life without parole applies automatically to first- and second-degree murder, and sometimes to third-degree murder. That law applied to all defendants until 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory life sentences for juveniles. In 2016, the court said that ruling applies retroactively. Inmates who were sentenced to automatic life terms for committing crimes before they turned 18, therefore, now have the opportunity to be released.
Judges, however, still have the option to sentence minors for life.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court will hold a hearing in Lee’s case Tuesday.