New Challenge to Constitutionality of Death By Incarceration in PA Supreme Court

Derek Lee, a 35-year-old Black man, seeks end to state’s ban on parole for those convicted of felony murder

July 17, 2023, Harrisburg, PA – In a potential landmark case, a Black man serving life without parole, also known as death by incarceration, for felony murder asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to assess the constitutionality of his sentence. Filed on his behalf last Thursday by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and Center for Constitutional Rights, Derek Lee’s petition argues that, because he did not himself kill or intend to kill anyone, his sentence is disproportionate and cruel under both the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions. Seventy percent of the more than 1,100 people in Pennsylvania serving death-by-incarceration sentences for felony murder are Black. 

In 2014, prosecutors alleged that Lee and another man broke into a house in Pittsburgh to commit robbery. According to the prosecution’s case, Lee was upstairs when the other man shot and killed a man in the basement. Mr. Lee was convicted of felony murder, which, in Pennsylvania, carries an automatic death-by-incarceration (DBI) sentence, commonly known as life without parole. 

Mr. Lee is seeking to end the state’s ban on parole for those convicted of felony murder. While his case concerns only a subset of people serving DBI sentences, it could have broad implications for the legal and political effort to reduce or end life imprisonment, a defining feature of the U.S. criminal legal system. 

“The felony murder rule is a relic of colonial England that has been abolished – or was never even adopted – in almost every country except the United States. Within the U.S., Pennsylvania is one of only two states that mandates DBI sentences for people convicted of felony murder even without any proof that they took a life or intended to take a life, and no matter their level of involvement in the underlying felony. The Supreme Court has an opportunity to bring Pennsylvania more in line with contemporary standards and begin to redress some of the harms caused by an ethos that seeks to exclude and punish, rather than repair and redeem,” said Quinn Cozzens, staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center

The application of the felony murder rule, which holds liable for murder a person who participates in a felony that leads to a death, is particularly extreme in Pennsylvania because the mandatory minimum sentence is life without parole. This contributes to the state’s status as a world capital of death by incarceration. With 5,200 people serving DBI sentences, the state has the country’s highest per capita rate and accounts for 10 percent of the U.S. total. Philadelphia county alone has more people serving these sentences than 45 states, and more than any country other than the United States. 

“Derek Lee’s story reflects the experience of over 1,000 people in Pennsylvania who are sentenced to die in prison due to the felony murder rule. It is a cruel form of punishment for someone who did not commit murder or intend for anyone to die during a robbery. This inhumane punishment robs him of hope for a life beyond bars, and it robs his community of a potential mentor and role model. We urge the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to assess the constitutionality of this cruel sentence,” said Nikki Grant, Policy Director, Amistad Law Project.

Previously, a group of people serving DBI sentences in Pennsylvania for felony murder brought a civil suit because the time for criminal appeals had passed, but it was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. No such hurdle exists for Lee, whose motion is part of his criminal case. He is challenging his sentence under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment, and the Pennsylvania constitution, which bans “cruel” punishment. In support of his petition to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, a number of amicus briefs were filed, including by the former secretary of the state Department of Corrections for a decade.

“There is a vital question as to whether life-without-parole sentences for people convicted of felony murder are proportionate under the Pennsylvania Constitution, considering that even the former heads of the department of corrections say that such sentences do not serve public safety and make little sense. The lives of many in Pennsylvania turn on this question, which we hope the Court takes up in Mr. Lee’s case,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Lee’s case emerges from a grassroots movement led by incarcerated people and their families, who note DBI’s devastating impact on not only individuals but entire communities, particularly Black ones. To force people to spend the rest of their lives in prison is to rob them of hope and deny their inherent human capacity for redemption, advocates say.

Like many other incarcerated people, Lee has managed to grow over the years despite the ever-present brutality and the dearth of rehabilitative resources. According to his mother, Betty Lee, he preaches in prison as the assistant to the chaplain and was appointed to the executive board of the Pennsylvania Lifers’ Association. If he were permitted to return to his community in Pittsburgh, he would be a powerful role model for young men, she says. 

Amicus briefs were filed in Mr. Lee’s case by former Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretaries John Wetzel and George Little, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Justice Center, Eighth Amendment Law Scholars, and The Sentencing Project, Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, Fair and Just Prosecution, and FAMM.

Read today’s filing here. For the amicus briefs and more information on the case, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page

The Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners, and organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. Abolitionist Law Center litigates on behalf of people whose human rights have been violated in prison, educates the general public about the evils of mass incarceration, and works to develop a mass movement against the American punishment system by building alliances and nurturing solidarity across social divisions. Follow Abolitionist Law Center on Facebook, @AbolitionistLC on Twitter, and @Abolitionistlc on Instagram.

Amistad Law Project is a public interest law firm and organizing project working to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. Founded and led by Black feminists, we work to abolish death by incarceration, create alternatives to policing, and get our communities the material resources and power they need to thrive. Follow us on social media:, @AmistadLaw on Twitter and Instagram.

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at


Last modified 

July 17, 2023