Federal Court in Pennsylvania Finds Miller Is Retroactive and Authorizes Resentencing


On July 29, the federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled that the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama is retroactive and requires resentencing for Kempis Songster, who was automatically sentenced to die in prison for murder when he was fifteen.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that the new rule in Miller, which bans mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders, is a substantive rule “because it categorically bans a sentencing practice or a scheme as applied to all juveniles convicted of murder.”

The court also reasoned that the Supreme Court made the new rule retroactive by applying it to Kuntrell Jackson, who was on collateral review. “It would be fundamentally unfair to find that because Jackson was paired with Miller he gets relief in the form of resentencing and the possibility of release while others similarly situated will not and will die in prison,” the court wrote.

Illinois, Florida, Mississippi, Iowa, Massachusetts, Texas, Nebraska, and federal courts across the country have recognized that Miller is fully retroactive.

A minority of courts, including the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, have held Miller is not retroactive. The federal court opined that those courts “ignore that Miller categorically banned a punishment that the law cannot impose on juveniles, a mandatory life without parole sentence. They fail to recognize that those defendants who were sentenced before Miller were sentenced to terms of life imprisonment that were unconstitutional.”

Because Miller struck down the mandatory sentencing scheme under which Kempis Songster was sentenced to die in prison without taking into account his age, individual characteristics, and the circumstances of the crime, the federal court held that he must be resentenced.