PA Supreme Court to Rule on Constitutionality of Life Without Parole for Felony Murder

Advocates working to end DBI smile

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear a landmark case brought by a man challenging the constitutionality of his sentence: life without parole for felony murder. Derek Lee argues that, because he did not kill or intend to kill anyone, his sentence is disproportionate and cruel under both the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions. He seeks to end the state’s ban on parole for those convicted of felony murder. 

Lee’s case emerges from a grassroots movement led by incarcerated people and their families who refer to life without parole as death by incarceration (DBI). While Lee’s case concerns only a subset of people serving DBI sentences, it could have broad implications for the effort to reduce or end life imprisonment, a defining feature of the U.S. criminal legal system and a major driver of mass incarceration. 


"The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's acceptance of Derek Lee's appeal is a major opportunity for Derek and thousands of others in his position to begin rolling back these excessive and harmful sentencing practices,” said Quinn Cozzens, staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center. “As one of the world's leaders in sentencing people to die in prison, it is long past time for Pennsylvania to join many other states in the U.S. and almost every country in the world in recognizing that people convicted of felony murder should not face death-by-incarceration sentences.”


The application of the felony murder rule, which holds liable for murder a person who participates in a felony that leads to a death, is particularly extreme in Pennsylvania because the mandatory minimum sentence is life without parole. With 5,200 people serving DBI sentences, the state has the country’s highest per capita rate and accounts for 10 percent of the U.S. total. Seventy percent of the more than 1,100 people in Pennsylvania serving death-by-incarceration sentences for felony murder are Black. 


“We are hopeful that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will provide justice for Derek Lee and all those sentenced to die in prison due to the felony murder rule,” said Nikki Grant, Policy Director, Amistad Law Project. “It is a cruel form of punishment for someone who did not commit murder or intend for anyone to die. The Supreme Court has the opportunity to end this inhumane punishment that is currently robbing thousands of people of hope for a life beyond bars in Pennsylvania.”


In 2014, Lee and another man allegedly broke into a house in Pittsburgh to commit robbery. According to the prosecution, Lee was upstairs when the other man shot and killed a man in the basement. In his petition filed in July on his behalf by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, Lee challenges his sentence under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment, and the Pennsylvania constitution, which bans “cruel” punishment. 


“Life without parole and other sentences that exceed life expectancy condemn individuals, disproportionately Black people, to death by incarceration,” said Samah Sisay, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “These sentences are torture and deprive incarcerated people of any hope for a second chance, but the Pensylnviania Supreme Court has the opportunity to end this cruel practice.”

Like many other incarcerated people, Lee has managed to grow over the years despite the ever-present brutality and dearth of rehabilitative resources in prisons. According to his mother, Betty Lee, he preaches in prison as the assistant to the chaplain and was appointed to the executive board of the Pennsylvania Lifers’ Association. If he were permitted to return to his community in Pittsburgh, he would be a powerful role model for young men, she says. 


Amicus briefs were filed in the case by former Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretaries John Wetzel and George Little, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Justice Center, Eighth Amendment Law Scholars, and The Sentencing Project, Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, Fair and Just Prosecution, and FAMM.


The questions the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will address are:


(1) Is [Petitioner's] mandatory sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole unconstitutional under Article I, § 13 of the Constitution of Pennsylvania where he was convicted of second-degree murder in which he did not kill or intend to kill and therefore had categorically-diminished culpability, and where Article I, § 13 should provide better protections in those circumstances than the Eighth Amendment to the U .S. Constitution?


(2) Is [Petitioner's] mandatory sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution where he was convicted of second-degree murder in which he did not kill or intend to kill and therefore had categorically- diminished culpability under the Eighth Amendment?


For more information on the case, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page


The Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners, and organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. Abolitionist Law Center litigates on behalf of people whose human rights have been violated in prison, educates the public about the evils of mass incarceration, and works to develop a mass movement against the American punishment system by building alliances and nurturing solidarity across social divisions. Follow Abolitionist Law Center on Facebook, @AbolitionistLC on Twitter, and @Abolitionistlc on Instagram.


Amistad Law Project is a public interest law firm and organizing project working to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. Founded and led by Black feminists, we work to abolish death by incarceration, create alternatives to policing, and get our communities the material resources and power they need to thrive. Follow us on social media:, @AmistadLaw on Twitter and Instagram.


The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Follow the Center for Constitutional Rights on Facebook, @theCCR on Twitter, and ccrjustice on Instagram.