Cruel and Unusual: Is Life Without Parole Too Harsh for Second Degree Murder?

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Nov 07, 2022 | 0 Comments

A 2014 Pennsylvania murder case resurfaced in the news this September as arguments were made to the state's Superior Court that a life sentence is cruel and unusual punishment. While no conclusion has yet been reached as of this writing, the defense presented a compelling argument: why is there a blanket sentence for a crime that varies widely from case to case?

What to Know About the Case

The convicted murderer in question is Derek Lee. Back in 2014, he and Paul Durham illegally entered a Pittsburgh home with the intention of robbing its occupants. Unfortunately for everyone involved, things did not go according to plan. The resident of the home was shot and killed.

Title 18 Section 2501 (b) of the Pennsylvania constitution states:

A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the second degree when it is committed while defendant was engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony.

By the letter of the law, there is no doubt that this is the right charge for this particular case. It was clearly the offenders' intention to commit robbery, which is a felony. Because a man was killed in the process, it qualifies as murder in the second degree. So what is the argument?

The statute — and others for similar types of violent crimes — fails to address any kind of variation. It does not attempt to distinguish between those who play vastly different roles during the offense. This is especially relevant in the case of Derek Lee, who wasn't even in the same part of the house when the resident was shot by Durham. He had no intention of harming anyone and played no active role in the violent act itself.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Cruel and unusual punishment is the issue at the core of the case presented to the Superior Court. Life without parole is the mandatory sentence for those convicted of murder in the second degree, without any regard to the intent of the accused. Lee's attorney argues that it is cruel that his client — an accomplice to the felony but an unintentional bystander to the murder — should be given an automatic life sentence for a crime he did not personally commit. The attorney suggests that this level of cruelty renders the sentencing guidelines unconstitutional.

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution proclaims that there should be no “…cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Pennsylvania constitution statute § 13 is a nearly verbatim replication. The only change? The Pennsylvania version removes the word “unusual.” While both of these terms are mostly subjective, it allows Lee to focus his appeal solely on the cruelty of the case. The result — and the possible change it brings to future second degree murder sentencing — is to be determined.

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About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento passionately fights for the futures of his clients in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania as well as in New Jersey and nationwide. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. With unparalleled experience occupying several roles in the criminal justice system outside of being an attorney, Joseph D. Lento can give you valuable behind-the-scenes insight as to what is happening during all phases of the legal process. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide. In the courtroom and in life, attorney Joseph D. Lento stands up when the bell rings!


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