Voices: Holding hope despite disappointment

anita colon-small

Anita Colon

My brother was given a sentence of life without parole for a crime he was convicted of participating in on his 16th birthday. That was more than 24 years ago, and since that time we have been fighting against this inhumane sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama should have brought a chance for justice to my brother and all those serving mandatory sentences of juvenile life without parole in Pennsylvania, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that Miller is not retroactive. Having my brother mired in the myriad judicial changes for the past decade has been a roller coaster—so many ups and downs, and after too many rides, you inevitably become weak and dizzy.

To adequately relay my feelings about the denial of retroactivity in Pennsylvania, I have to go back to where this journey to justice really began gaining traction, which is the Graham v. Florida decision in 2010 that said that children convicted of non-homicides cannot receive life-without-parole sentences. This is when the first feelings of hope began to sink in.

Then when the Supreme Court agreed to hear Miller and I was able to witness the oral argument I cried tears of sadness and excitement and felt the first true sense of impending justice. When that decision came down saying that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional, we thought, “This is what we’ve been saying; this is what we’ve been fighting for.” I was trying to call my children to relay the good news, but I found it so hard to speak between sobs. It brought an astounding feeling of redemption. There’s no higher authority in our land, and they said that this is law. We were validated and justice was here!

My family and I were filled with excitement and relief. Even my brother was cautiously optimistic. The thought of the decision not being deemed retroactive never, ever came into my mind. Even after the whispers of retroactivity challenges began, we dismissed them as just rumors since the ruling was so clear.

And then the Cunningham v. Pennsylvania decision came down in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court—that Miller was not retroactive in Pennsylvania, and my brother and nearly 500 others would keep their life sentences. It was a blow harder than any outcome in Miller could have ever been. For Pennsylvania’s decision to come down against us—Pennsylvania with the most juvenile lifers in the country—was the worst sense of injustice I have ever felt. I thought that as a country and as Pennsylvanians we had learned so much since then. Justice should not depend on what state you’re from.

Next the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to take up the Cunningham case for review. After Roper v. Simmons in 2005 (eliminating the death penalty for children) and Graham in 2010, my family and other family members had embraced the work of the justices, so we were very hurt and very betrayed. For Cunningham, both sides of the issue were fighting for the Court to grant review; I truly was expecting the Court to take the case up.

Legislation also has passed that left so much to be desired. It’s disappointing to be in a state that wants to fight any sort of change to our system, which has been proven to be unjust and unfair. Now our only hope is that the Supreme Court will clarify retroactivity by taking up another case.

My brother was really disappointed, though he feels confident that in the end we will prevail—that justice will prevail. We’re on the right side of history and this is a legitimate human rights issue. People on the outside fighting for him keep him strong and focused.

Sometimes I have to take a step back from all the disappointments that we’ve faced over the past few years and instead look overall at the progress that’s been made. That’s really what helps; that’s what allows me to get back up in the morning, the next day, after another setback. I think about the Roper decision coming down nearly 10 years ago, in 2005. From 2005 to 2010 there was no progress—five years of nothing!  And then in 2010 we had Graham, and in 2012, Miller. I look back and I see where we have come. It’s taken longer than I would like and longer than the 500 juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania would like, but I very firmly believe that we are on the path to righting a wrong.