The Fight to Reform Felony-Murder Sentencing in Pennsylvania

By Emily Buchman, Staff Writer 

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Pennsylvania is one of more than 40 states with a felony-murder law. Such laws stipulate that if a death occurs while a felony is being committed, participants in the felony can be charged with murder, even if they played no direct role in the death.[1]

Pennsylvania is unique in the way it sentences those convicted of felony-murder. It is one of only six states that requires a mandatory sentence of life without parole (“LWOP”) for all individuals convicted of the crime.[2]

This harsh sentencing has prompted outrage among advocates for the particularly adverse impacts it has on people of color, especially young people. Statistics indicate that in Pennsylvania, people of color make up approximately 80% of imprisoned individuals with a felony-murder conviction.[3] Advocates argue that the law also ignores the cognitive vulnerabilities of youth and young adults. In 2019, nearly three-quarters of people serving LWOP for felony-murder were under 25 at the time of their offense.[4] Advocates argue that heavy use of LWOP, referred to by activists as “death by incarceration,” is emblematic of the U.S. system of mass incarceration. 

Scott v. PA Board of Probation and Parole challenges the mandatory sentencing scheme, arguing that it is unconstitutional and serves no legitimate public purpose.[5] Rooted in principles of redemption, the lawsuit is the first of its kind in the country. The complaint asks the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare LWOP for felony-murder convictions unconstitutional under the Pennsylvania Constitution. The case is brought by the Pittsburgh-based advocacy group, The Abolitionist Law Center, the Amistad Law Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights. 

One plaintiff, Ms. Marie Scott, was prosecuted for her role as a lookout in the robbery of a gas station, during which her co-defendant shot and killed an employee. Ms. Scott, who was 19 at the time, had no warning or knowledge of her co-defendant’s plan to kill.[6]

According to the original complaint, Ms. Scott has participated in educational and rehabilitative programs during her 50 years of incarceration and accepts full responsibility for her crime, feeling deep remorse for her actions.[7] She has earned an associate degree in sociology from Penn State University, undergone paralegal training, and formed groups in prison that support children of incarcerated parents.[8] These accomplishments are only a few examples of what Ms. Scott has done for herself and her community while in prison. Her accomplishments also reflect a life spent behind bars. Ms. Scott was a teenager when she was incarcerated. She is now a senior citizen. 

Under the present statute, Ms. Scott, who is now in her late 60s, will likely die in prison. Her co-defendant-the one who pulled the trigger-has since been released from prison due to his juvenile status at the time of the crime.[9]

Ms. Scott shared her hopes for the future outside of prison. Ms. Scott hopes to “try and prevent women who struggle with codependency from making the terrible choices I did that caused an innocent man to lose his life. I will visit prisons to share my story about the disease of codependency and show them that not only the majority of women in prison are codependent but suffer with it because of their family dynamics.”[10]   

“We know that people are more than their worst moments in life…our clients are simply asking for a chance to demonstrate to the Parole Board how they have changed,” said Niki Grant, Policy Director of the Amistad Law Project.[11] “Everyone deserves the opportunity to show how they have rehabilitated themselves, that they can be redeemed and become an asset to their community.”[12]

Numerous Amicus Curiae briefs have been written in support of the suit. One written by the Sentencing Project outlined the importance of this case by arguing that the statute violates the Eighth Amendment’s proportionality principle and serves no legitimate penological purpose. [13]

In 2021, the Commonwealth Court sustained the Board’s preliminary objection and dismissed the complaint, holding that the Court lacked jurisdiction over the matter. [14] The case is now on appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. 

[1] Jordana Rosenfeld, Pa. Supreme Court Case Challenges Parole Ban for Felony Murder Convictions, , April 18, 2022

[2]Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D, Emma Stammen, and Connie Budaci, , March 31, 2022

[3] Id.

[4] Id.



[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. 


[12] Id.

[13] Ghandnoosh, Sentencing Project, March 31, 2022

[14] Scott v. Pa. Bd. of Prob. & Parole, 256 A.3d 483 (Pa. Cmmw. Ct. 2021)

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