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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Supreme Court impacts St. Joe’s

Professor’s project moves forward with ruling

A recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court has struck close to home for some members of the Saint Joseph’s University community.

On Jan. 25, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Alabama by a 6-3 majority vote that minors who were charged with murder and sentenced to mandatory life without parole must be given the opportunity to argue for their own release from prison.

Mike Lyons, Ph.D., professor of communications at Saint Joseph’s University, started The Redemption Project, which focuses on these “juvenile lifers”—men and women who are sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as children.

This recent ruling follows a long timeline of legal debates over the issue of juvenile lifers. The most recent case was in 2012, when the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that there can be no mandatory life sentence without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.

What this meant, Lyons said, was that a minor can still be sentenced to life without parole, but only after all other circumstances surrounding the case had been examined, such as the child’s background, who he or she was with or being influenced by at the time the crime was committed, and their psychological development.

After the ruling in 2012, Pennsylvania and other states decided to implement it only for future cases and not for juvenile lifers already incarcerated. Montgomery v. Louisiana challenged this ruling, and argued that the law needed to be made retroactive—applied to all past and present cases.

Samantha DiGiuseppe, ’16, a student research assistant for The Redemption Project, explained that the ruling was very exciting for both the inmates and members of the project, but that the future these juvenile lifers is still un- known.

“As exciting as it is, [the in- mates] don’t really know what’s next or how [the state] is going to go about taking a second look at these cases,” DiGiuseppe said. She explained that the ruling doesn’t automatically ensure that all the prisoners will be released as each of their cases will have to be re- tried and there is a chance that the same verdict would be reached a second time. DiGiuseppe said the hope though is that the prison- ers will be able to show how they have been rehabilitated and will be granted a second chance.

The Redemption Project was started one year ago by Lyons and three juvenile lifers, Kempis “Ghani” Songster, John Pace, and Aaron “Abdul Lateef ” Phillips.

The aim of the project, Lyons said, is to use advocacy journalism and social media tools to tell the stories of these incarcerated individuals and incite change in the law and the public.

“Part of our intention is to disrupt the traditional narrative of juvenile crime,” said Lyons, “…there is another side to this story… [and] one of the reasons they’re serving life without parole is because no one has ever heard their stories.”

Last semester Lyons also taught a special topics communications class at Saint Joe’s called “Crime & Justice in the Media,” which gave students the opportunity to become involved with the project and the prisoners.

Students in the class visited Graterford Prison, in Collegeville, Pa., and spoke with the inmates involved with the project.

Carly McGowan, ’16, was one of these students. As she described it, they were working firsthand with men who were charged with first or second-degree murder.

“I had never been more nervous in my life, like palms sweating,” said McGowan of her first visit to Graterford. “And then you sit down and [the inmates are] just so nice, so genuine, so intelligent. We would sit around in a circle group discussion…and we talked about how the juvenile life issue is interesting to us, but also what they want us to do.”

After the class ended last fall semester, McGowan, DiGiuseppe and two other students, Cat Coyle, ’16, and Malia Reynolds, ’16, stayed on to work with Lyons as research

assistants. Each is now currently working on a separate section of the project, dictated by their interests.

Reynolds explained that she felt too invested to just let the issue go after the end of the semester.

“At the end of last year with the class, I just was like, I don’t think I can just walk away from this subject, it’s too special to me now…these are real people’s lives now that I’m dealing with,” Reynolds said.

McGowan, who is working on the project’s social media, explained that one of her goals is to change the public viewpoint of juvenile lifers.

“When you tell people that these men, that were charged with first or second-degree murder, are happy to possibly get out, people are automatically like, ‘No they need to stay in prison,’” she said. “But once you hear the stories and actually get to know them [and] you learn that he’s in prison get- ting an education, and getting a masters, and bettering himself…and we’re trying to share that with the public.”

When asked what he hopes the project will accomplish going forward, Lyons said that he hopes it will cause people to think differently about these cases and realize the complexity surrounding them. “Our society kind of believes in this idea of mercy, and justice and redemption,” said Lyons, “and so let’s put our money where our mouth is, let’s give these people a second chance, [and] see what happens.”

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