5 want life sentences overturned

January 15, 2013

WILKES-BARRE – Five convicted killers from Luzerne County are seeking to overturn their life sentences based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional, even though they were all adults when they committed their crimes.

The defendants, Wilson Hernandez, Donnell Buckner, Patricia Stark, Gregory Fann and David Lee Hanley, ranged in age from 18 to 35, yet they contend they should still be entitled to relief under the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Miller v. Alabama.

In that case, the high court ruled in June a mandatory life sentence for a defendant who was under age 18 at the time of his or her crime constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling did not outlaw a life sentence for juveniles, but said judges must be free to consider other alternatives.

The court's decision was based, in part, on its findings that juveniles have a less developed brain than adults. Because of that, a judge should be permitted to take other factors into consideration when deciding an appropriate sentence, the justices said.

Adult defendants are now seizing on the psychological factors outlined in the court's ruling in hopes of winning a new sentencing hearing.

Buckner, convicted in 2010 murder of his wife, Kewaii Rogers, is the oldest of the defendants seeking relief. He was 35 at the time he fatally shot Rogers.

Stark was 23 when she shot and killed Cari Chapman in 2006; Fann was 20 when he fatally shot Aaron Witko in 2008; Hernandez was 18 years and two months old when he and another man beat Andrew Danko to death in 1994; Hanley was 18 years and three months old when he and another teen shot and killed Diana Algar and Jose Molina in 1999.

Attorney Jeffrey Yelen, who represents each of the defendants, recently filed court papers asking a Luzerne County judge to appoint a psychological expert to evaluate them to determine if they possessed any of the psychological factors detailed in the Supreme Court ruling.

In his petition, Yelen acknowledges each of the defendants were not juveniles at the time of their crimes, but says they believe the reasoning behind the Supreme Court ruling should still apply to them.

Yelen does not provide any other reasoning for their arguments. He could not be reached for comment Monday regarding the legal argument he intends to put forth.

It's not clear yet what impact the U.S. Supreme Court ruling will have on juveniles who are serving life sentences.

Courts throughout the nation, including Pennsylvania, are still debating whether the ruling applies only to new cases, or if it also applies retroactively to defendants already serving sentences.

The state Supreme Court heard argument on that issue in September in two cases out of Northampton and Philadelphia counties. It has not yet issued a ruling on the matter.