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Betty Lee

Derek Lee, who is currently in the process of appealing his life sentence without parole for aggravated murder.

Derek Lee was sentenced to death in prison on a charge of second-degree murder for a crime in which he did not take life.

He did not kill or try to kill anyone, his lawyers say. But in 2016, prosecutors working under District Attorney Steven Zappalo convinced a judge that Lee should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Now, the Pittsburgh-based law firm Abolitionist Law Center hopes to reverse that through an appeal pending in the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

Brett Groth, legal director of the Abolition Law Center, argued on Lee’s behalf Tuesday against the state’s mandatory life sentence without parole for second-degree murder, which he said was “grossly disproportionate” to Lee’s involvement in the underlying crime. Legally, Grote argues that the sentence violates Lee’s constitutional right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2014, Lee was charged with several felonies for his role in the attempted burglary that led to the death of Leonard Butler. Although he was never charged with the shooting that ended Butler’s life, he was convicted of second-degree murder two years later. According to witness statements, Lee was not in the room when the shooting occurred.

In Pennsylvania, second-degree murder is defined as a murder committed either without intent or while the defendant was participating in a related crime. In Pennsylvania and 47 other statesif the death occurs during the commission of a crime, anyone believed to be an accomplice, such as a getaway driver or a second party to a robbery, can be charged with second-degree murder, sometimes called murder.

More than 1000 people in Pennsylvania, who neither killed nor intended to kill, are serving life sentences without parole for aggravated murder, respectively. Similar schemes are played out in other states. One study c 1,000 people incarcerated in California found that 72% of women convicted of murder and serving life sentences did not kill anyone.

Pennsylvania is one of the eight states across the country, where second-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Opponents of mass incarceration often refer to life in prison without parole as “death by incarceration.”

With Lee’s case, the abolitionist legal center hopes to draw attention to the structural injustices they say underlie felony and murder laws that have been found disproportionate impact youth, black people and women.

“While only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is black, about 70 percent of people serving death sentences for aggravated murder are black,” the ALC said in a news release.

Advocates also argue that Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole for second-degree murder is particularly harsh compared to other states and countries.

“Pennsylvania is one of the few states in the nation and the world that continues this practice of life imprisonment for felony murder, an offense that many states and most countries have abolished or never prosecuted,” said Quinn Cozzens, staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center. . “At the very least, people like Derek should be given the opportunity to one day return home to their families and communities.”

Narrated by Derek Lee’s mother, Betty Lee Pittsburgh City Paper that despite the fact that the state prison system does not offer what inmates need to rehabilitate, such as counseling and adequate medical care, Derek has nevertheless fully dedicated himself to personal growth and change.

“My son is certainly not the man he was when he was first arrested. he was angry not focused, everywhere. He put himself to work and is now an assistant chaplain, preacher, singer in the church choir, appointed to the executive board of the Pennsylvania Prisoners’ Association, and he pours himself into other young men coming home from prison, helping them see differently and solve problems and situations,” says Lee. “I think he just realized that he needed to take control of his own life, regardless of where he was, whether he was offered that opportunity or not.”

Lee says her son and people like him are well-positioned to mentor and support young people involved in the criminal justice system, and that if given the chance to return home to Pittsburgh, Derek Lee can provide a valuable service to his community.

“Who better to come back here and instill in our younger generations who are going in the wrong direction than those who have done it themselves?”

A win in this case won’t get Derek out of prison, but it could get him a parole hearing, and with it, another chance at life outside of prison.

“People deserve a second chance,” says Betty. “If you make a change and take the initiative to make that change, you deserve a second chance. And I’m not just saying this for my son. I am saying that everyone who takes this initiative wants to do better for themselves. Give them that chance.”

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