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Is life without parole for 2nd-degree murder cruel and unusual punishment? Pennsylvania high court to decide.

State Supreme Court to look at mandatory sentencing for second-degree murder
State Supreme Court to look at mandatory sentencing for second-degree murder 04:03

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — They're serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for murder even though they did not pull the trigger. 

The state has thrown away the key for hundreds of inmates with no hope of release. But should they get at least a chance at a second chance? 

The state Supreme Court will decide if these inmates, who did not directly commit murder, will live out their days and die in prison, or whether they will be given at least a chance at rehabilitation and eventual freedom. 

Betty Lee is the mother of Derek Lee, whose case will go before the high court. She believes her son and hundreds of others should be given that chance. 

"Allow those who deserve it, who work at it to come home, to come home one day and not just rot away," Betty Lee said. 

Ten years ago, Leonard Butler was shot and killed in the basement of his home in Pittsburgh's West End. Subsequently arrested and convicted were the man who pulled the trigger and his accomplice, Derek Lee, who was upstairs at the time.  

Even though he did not shoot Butler, Derek Lee was charged and convicted of second-degree murder because he was part of the robbery in which Butler was killed. 

Under state law, Lee is now one of about 1,100 Pennsylvania inmates who are serving the mandatory life in prison for second-degree murder with virtually no hope of release. It is believed to be the highest number of inmates in the nation. 

"It's a sentence that denies people any hope, it's a sentence that denies rehabilitation," said Quinn Cozzens of the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh. 

Arguing that Lee did not kill or intend to kill Butler, his attorneys have appealed his sentence to the state Supreme Court, saying life without the possibility of parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and violates the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions. 

Cozzens said it allows no chance of redemption, offers no hope of release and calls it death by incarceration. 

"It's not much different from a death-by-execution sentence, where the state actively takes your life," Cozzens said. "But instead it just leaves you to die inside prison walls without any opportunity or hope for release and reintegration into society."

Governor Josh Shapiro agrees. In filing a surprise friend of the court brief in support of Derek Lee's appeal, the governor says mandatory life for second degree violates the state's constitution. 

Of those 1,100 inmates, Shapiro's brief says in about half the cases "the defendant was clearly not the killer and cases in which it was not clear." But they receive the same sentence as if they were. 

"As a result, under current law, an offender who points a gun to a person's head and pulls the trigger receives the same mandatory life sentence as the getaway driver. ... Both offenders should be punished severely, but they should not be punished the same. This sentencing scheme is not only unjust; it is unconstitutional." 

Betty Lee says she understands the anger of victim's families, having had a close cousin murdered. But she says her son has transformed himself in prison, becoming an assistant to the chaplain and has begun writing a book. 

"Losing someone in any capacity is not easy," she said. "But I just don't feel that people shouldn't be given a chance. If you give them a chance and they fail, that's different. But how do we know if we don't give them a chance?"

If Derek Lee prevails, his mandatory sentence will be declared unconstitutional and he can be re-sentenced, opening the door to hundreds of other inmates.

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