- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2016

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Pennsylvania officials have granted parole to four of the first five “juvenile lifers” to seek release after the U.S. Supreme Court retroactively banned mandatory life terms for minors.

The high court’s decision this year means that more than 500 Pennsylvania inmates, and 2,500 across the country, can seek new sentencing hearings and perhaps parole.

The four Philadelphia-area men being released have spent decades in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles. They are now in their 50s and 60s. The state parole board chairman who met with them last week found their outlook on life surprising.

“The one thing that I will say stood out last week has been the surprising optimism of the ones we interviewed, based on the light at the end of the tunnel being turned back on. That was something very nice to see … their positive attitude,” board chairman Leo Dunn said Monday.

Defense lawyers concerned about how the board would view the cases are also feeling optimistic, if cautiously so. The inmates must first be resentenced by judges and then, if granted a chance at parole, persuade the majority of the nine-member board they are no longer a safety risk.

“They were told they were going to go to prison and die, so it’s a source of incredible optimism,” said Bradley Bridge, a lead lawyer working on the issue at the Defenders Association of Philadelphia. “(But) anytime there’s hope, you have to temper it with caution.”

Dunn expects it to take a few years for the courts and parole board to work through the Pennsylvania cases. About 300 of them were tried in Philadelphia, including that of Tyrone Jones, who has spent 43 years in prison for a 1973 gang-related slaying.

Jones, 59, insists that his confession was coerced, and has support from the Innocence Project of Pennsylvania. But when a judge this year re-sentenced him to 35 years to life, in the wake of the January decision by the Supreme Court, he put his innocence claim aside to seek parole.

The board approved his release Thursday, after reviewing what his lawyer calls the exemplary life he has lived behind bars. Jones can skip a stop at a halfway house and instead move in with a sister in North Carolina.

“To go from a completely secure environment for 40 years to his sister’s house, that’s almost like being in a time machine because he’s been so isolated,” said Hayes Hunt, a private attorney who has worked on Jones’ case pro bono for several years.

Four of the nine parole board members were recently appointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. In an unusual move, the board met as a group last week to weigh the first batch of juvenile lifer cases. The others granted release are Henry Smolarski, 53, of Philadelphia, a then-prep school student who fatally stabbed a Temple University student in 1979; Earl Rice, 60, of Delaware County, whose victim died after she hit her head in a 1973 purse snatching; and Chris Edward Jordan, 52, an accomplice in the 1980 shooting of a potential witness to a Chester County burglary.

The shooter in Jordan’s case, Brian Hooper, was denied parole Thursday, but advised he could try again in a year. The board weighs a petitioner’s educational, behavioral and work record in prison, along with their risk to the community and victim impact statements, the same criteria used for all parole decisions, Dunn said.

“I think all nine of our board members are very open and supportive,” he said. “If we parole them, we want them to be successful.”

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This story has been corrected to say the Supreme Court issued ruling on retroactivity this year, not last year.

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