Juvenile Lifer Injustice

Juvenile Injustice

Juvenile Lifer Injustice

You may be surprised to learn that some courts are applying a 2012 sentencing statute while sentencing juvenile lifers who were convicted prior to the enactment of the law.  The statute specifically states that it only applies to those convicted after 2012.  So how can a juvenile lifer be sentenced under that particular sentencing scheme?  It’s happening, but it isn’t happening with uniformity.  

In Allegheny County the District Attorney’s Office is taking a hard line.  They are not negotiating with any juvenile lifer regardless of the circumstances.  Every juvenile lifer will receive either a maximum term of life or a term of life without parole.  This is not the case in other counties across our state.  Why, because there is no sentencing scheme enacted to provide the courts with guidance.

Representing criminal defendants and juvenile lifer clients is a very difficult job.  The job becomes even more difficult when our laws are not applied equally or are applied retroactively.  This is a prime example of why clients get so frustrated when I tell them that “This is the law, but this is what happens”.  

The fight for Mr. Cristina is not over for me.  My court appointment to represent him as a juvenile lifer may be over, but I’m not throwing in the towel.  I strongly believe that the sentence he received was illegal and that the court had the ability and discretion to sentence him, or any juvenile lifer prior to 2012, to a term of time served.  

There are hundreds of juvenile lifer cases in Pennsylvania and thousands across the country.  Hopefully our Supreme Court will one day address how courts handle the mandatory “life” tail that is being imposed as a mandatory juvenile lifer sentence.  

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Sentenced to life at 17, Pittsburgh man now 57 could be out in months

 

Jeffrey Cristina has spent 14,803 days in jail or prison since his arrest and conviction for second-degree murder at 17, and will spend at least a few more months awaiting parole.

Cristina, 57, was one of about 480 Pennsylvania inmates eligible for resentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole were unconstitutional for all juveniles sentenced as adults. On Wednesday, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani gave him a new sentence of 20 years to life, making him immediately eligible for parole but waiting to move through that process.

“He’s done everything society asked him to do, and then some,” Mariani said.

Mariani said that given Cristina’s spotless record over more than four decades in prison, he would have considered releasing him Wednesday with time served, but a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling indicated that for former “juvenile lifers,” the sentence has to include an upper limit of life in prison.

On the stand, Cristina testified that he had held several jobs in prison mentoring juvenile convicts and helping them send books and messages to their families; he earned professional licenses and accreditations; and held positions of trust that let him do odd jobs outside prison walls.

Cristina and two co-defendants were charged with homicide for the December 1975 robbery of Frank Slazinski, 83, in his Lawrenceville apartment over $15 and a portable television. Slazinski, who was recovering from another robbery days earlier, died four days after the attack from a broken windpipe and pneumonia, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

Cristina said one of his co-defendants had been bullying him and his family since they moved from Brookline to Lawrenceville in his parents’ divorce, and he went along with the robbery in the hope that it would offer some relief from the torment.

“I’m sorry for what happened to Mr. Slazinski and his family,” he said. “At the time, I wasn’t strong enough physically or mentally to handle that situation.”

Deputy District Attorney Ronald Wabby Jr. said his office tried to find members of Slazinski’s family to testify about the impact the crime had on them but could not reach anyone after so long.

Cristina’s family members who testified on his behalf said they were disappointed in Mariani’s ruling, having hoped for immediate release.

“The family is fighting over who would get him first,” said his niece, Heather Taylor. “I hope the parole board will see everything he’s done over the last 40 years and let him come home and have some kind of life.”

She said she is concerned the parole process would be dragged out and delay her uncle’s release for months or years. Steve Townsend, Cristina’s attorney, said the parole process could start in December at the earliest. He called Cristina, Taylor and Cristina’s brother to testify and submitted his client’s letters of recommendation — including a 1993 recommendation for commuting his sentence that was dropped in the change of administrations between Govs. Bob Casey and Tom Ridge — as evidence to be considered by the parole board later.

“In his case, his turnaround time should be much quicker than everyone else,” Townsend said.

Cristina is among the first of about 40 juvenile lifers convicted in Allegheny County to be resentenced. Judge Donna Jo McDaniel this month sentenced Kristopher Heggins, now 36, to 30 years to life, with credit for the 16 years he’s served since his conviction for second-degree murder in the 1997 killing of a minister in Highland Park.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

 

Judge keeps one of Pennsylvania’s ‘juvenile lifers’ in prison, reluctantly

 

By Karen Kane / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani couldn’t have made it more clear Wednesday morning: He believes Jeffrey Cristina — one of Pennsylvania’s so-called “juvenile lifers” — should be released immediately from prison. But the judge essentially bumped the case to the state Board of Pardons, saying he believes that the controlling law in Pennsylvania prevents him from doing what he’d really like to do.

Cristina slowly shook his bowed head in apparent disappointment. And perhaps disbelief.

“We really thought he’d be coming home today,” said Cristina’s niece, Heather Taylor of Harrison, sobbing after the hourlong hearing.

She wasn’t alone. Many in the crowded courtroom were shedding tears, including some who were apparent strangers.

Cristina, 57, has been in prison since 1976, after he was convicted of second-degree murder in the beating death of an elderly man. He denies he participated in the beating and the judge acknowledged “there’s a lot of dispute” about Cristina’s role in the death.

Jeffrey Cristina

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But, Judge Mariani noted, that is largely irrelevant to his judicial assessment of the situation: In sum, the judge said he believes that Cristina’s original sentence as a 17-year-old to “life without parole” is unconstitutional.

Further, he said that in his 36-year legal career — including 11 years on the bench — he never has seen anyone with as good a prison record as Cristina’s, calling him an ideal convict who hasn’t had a single infraction, who has taken advantage of every educational program available to him, and who has worked as mentor and tutor to other prisoners during the past four decades.

And the judge noted that in 1993, the state Board of Pardons unanimously recommended commutation for Cristina. But, it was denied by former Gov. Bob Casey.

Judge Mariani appeared to be frustrated.

“I wish I had the ability to sentence him to time served … I have to abide by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” he said, referring to a 2013 court case, Commonwealth vs. Batts, that essentially makes a 2012 sentencing statute retroactive. It pertains to juveniles convicted of first- or second-degree homicide. The statute establishes life in prison as the upper end for a defendant age 15 or older.

Judge Mariani said he believed he was required to make the top end of Mr. Cristina’s new sentence “life” with the bottom end at 20 years. Since he has already served 40 years, Cristina now can apply for parole. The next application period is December. If granted, he would be released from prison but would be court-supervised on parole for the rest of his life.

Cristina’s attorney, Steven C. Townsend, said he was disappointed and frustrated. He said he appreciated the judge’s sympathy for his client but disagrees that the judge’s hands were tied.

Assistant district attorney Ronald Wabby Jr. agreed with Judge Mariani’s assessment of the legal situation, but he did not lobby the judge for any particular sentence.

It has been a long haul for Cristina and his family. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 found in Miller vs. Alabama that mandatory life terms for juveniles are unconstitutional. Defense attorneys across Pennsylvania began seeking resentencings for their clients.

Cristina originally was slated to have a hearing before Judge Mariani in April 2013, but it was postponed while the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether Miller should be retroactive. That happened in January in Montgomery vs. Louisiana.

In February, a state appellate court ordered that nine defendants across the state — including four from Allegheny County — have their cases sent back for resentencing.

Judge Mariani said Cristina can be “held up as an example of what every prisoner should be doing in prison.” He said he reluctantly keeps him behind bars “under the constraint” of state legal precedent.

“He was a juvenile. There’s some issue as to who actually committed the homicide. He’s been a law-abiding convict and then some … I’ll say it plainly, I recommend he be paroled,” the judge said.

He allowed testimony Wednesday.

Andrew Cristina, Jeffrey Cristina’s older brother, said the pair grew up in a home where violence was served up daily. The boys’ father was abusive in every way, said the 63-year-old. He said his parents divorced, and the boys and a sister moved from Brookline to Lawrenceville, where Jeffrey Cristina got in with a bad crowd.

Cristina also took the stand.

He testified he was sorry for the victim and his family and said he wished he hadn’t gone that night with his co-defendant but said the man was a bully.

He acknowledged the physical and verbal abuse by his father, testified to by his brother. Then, in answer to a question from his attorney, Cristina said prosecutors at the time of his trial offered a juvenile conviction that would have sent him to the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center until he was 21. “My father didn’t allow me,” he said.

He has been behind bars ever since, currently at the state prison in Somerset.

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or at 724-772-9180.