It was a situation rarely seen in any criminal court. An admitted murderer and his family watched as a judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys worked in support of his efforts to get out of prison.
It happened in Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center on Wednesday, in the case of Michael Twiggs, 58, who has served 41 years in prison for killing another man when he was 17.
“A long time ago, I made a horrible decision that cost a young man’s life,” Twiggs said before breaking down in sobs during his re-sentencing hearing. “Christopher Ross is that young man’s name. … I’m so sorry for my past transgressions.”
Twiggs is one of Philadelphia’s 300 “juvenile lifers” — defendants sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18 — who all now must be re-sentenced under a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court in part found that juveniles' brains are not completely developed and they do not fully understand the implications of their actions.
In 1975, Twiggs fatally shot 19-year-old Ross with a sawed-off shotgun after an argument sparked by Twiggs about a female acquaintance sitting with Ross on a porch.
Judge Kathryn Lewis heard testimony from family and friends that while at the state prison in Graterford, Twiggs pursued extensive self-education activities. He studied the law and helped other inmates work on their cases. One lifelong friend testified that they would give Twiggs a job when he got out.
“It shows me you had the strength and the depth of character to invest in yourself and grow, despite the circumstances,” Lewis noted. “You made the choice to try and improve yourself, to try and help others.”
Prosecutors and Twiggs’ lawyer had agreed to a new sentence on murder charges of 35 years to life in prison. He will remain incarcerated, but is now be eligible for parole, which prosecutors will support. A parole hearing is expected to be scheduled within 45 to 60 days.
The Philadelphia D.A.’s office has handled 15 of these complex "juvenile lifer" re-sentencings since June, when the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision that juveniles could not be sentenced to life in prison was expanded to apply retroactively to past sentencings. The D.A.’s office has 25 more re-sentencings scheduled by February 2017.
Statewide, Pennsylvania had 506 of these cases, the highest number of any state in the country. The Defenders Association of Philadelphia has taken on about 225 juvenile-lifers cases.
“They’re being handled fairly. I think they’re being handled a little too slowly,” said Twiggs’ attorney, Bradley Bridge, who is with the Defenders Association.
“Michael Twigg should be released immediately because he has done exceedingly well in prison,” Bridge said. “We still have to go before the parole board, and that takes time, and that’s unfortunate.”
But in the end, for someone whose served 41 years, a few months may not make a huge difference.
“It was absolutely amazing. I can't even put it into words,” said Twiggs’ sister, Sharon Harris, of the power of watching her brother apologize for his actions in court. “It has really made all of us feel very humbled. Our hearts go out to everybody. It was so amazing.”