On July 30, the Public Interest Law Center, partnering with pro bono counsel from Blank Rome LLP, filed an amicus brief in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania in Sherman McCoy v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The case concerns an appeal by Mr. McCoy, a person with an intellectual disability (ID) who received a mandatory sentence of life without parole under Pennsylvania law. The brief, filed on behalf of the ARC of Pennsylvania, Disability Rights Pennsylvania, and Visions for Equality Inc., argues that Pennsylvania’s mandatory imposition of a sentence of life without parole for a person with ID violates the Eighth Amendment of the U. S. Constitution’s prohibition cruel and unusual punishment.
Stereotypes have led to severe discrimination and segregation against people with intellectual disability. “As part of a society that values the ‘dignity of man,’” we contend, “courts have a moral and legal imperative to ensure that punishment is proportionate to the culpability of the individual being sentenced and is not based on stereotypes of some disfavored group.”
The United States Supreme Court has previously ruled that a death penalty sentence for a person with ID violates the Eighth Amendment because individuals with ID possess characteristics as a class that make them less morally culpable and decrease the reliability and fairness of proceedings against them. For somewhat similar reasons, the Supreme Court has also held that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death, nor can they be sentenced to mandatory life without parole.
The Court has never decided, however, whether the reasoning that bars death sentences for people with ID, and both death sentences and sentences of mandatory life without parole for juveniles, should be extended to prohibit sentences of mandatory life without parole for people with intellectual disabilities. Relying on this precedent as well as modern scientific research, we make the case that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a person with ID is similarly unconstitutional. A mandatory life sentence precludes courts from considering each individual’s traits, their lesser culpability, or their capacity for reform, and poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment that violates the Eight Amendment.
The brief concludes by arguing that mandatory life without parole sentences for persons with ID should be replaced by an individualized approach. Read the full brief here.