Inmate Hopes Juvenile Lifer Ruling Will Free Him Convicted of Murder at 17, He Has Hearing Set on His Sentencing

Article excerpt

On June 29, 1976, Jeffrey Cristina was found guilty of second- degree murder and robbery.

He was 17 years old and faced a mandatory prison term of life without parole -- even though the jury did not believe he killed the victim.

Since that time, Cristina, now 54, has remained incarcerated within the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

He has not received a single misconduct write-up while in prison, and has taken advantage of just about every educational opportunity presented to him.

"Most of these kids that went in for life had no incentive to do anything because they figured they'd never get out," said Cristina's defense attorney, Steve Townsend. "What he's done with his life for the last 37 years is pretty decent.

"He's taken every advantage he's had inside to be rehabilitated. The system actually worked for him."

It is that record, Mr. Townsend said, that he thinks gives his client a good chance of someday getting out.

This week, Cristina will become the first person in Allegheny County to be resentenced based on last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, which made mandatory life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional.

According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, there are 2,570 people serving life without parole who were convicted as juveniles across the United States. More than 25 percent are serving that sentence for felony murder (when a person is killed during the commission of another felony, such as robbery, for example) or accomplice liability, the organization says.

Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any other state.

As of April 1, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, there were 462 such offenders imprisoned across the state.

Of those, 266 were convicted of first-degree murder -- a premeditated killing. Another 157 were convicted of second-degree murder -- or felony murder. A person can be convicted even if he or she did not actually commit the killing, but participated in the underlying crime.

Philadelphia has the largest number of juvenile lifers at 265, while Allegheny County has the second largest -- 48.

Attorneys on both sides of the issue are awaiting a decision from the state Supreme Court in Pennsylvania v. Cunningham, which will determine if the Miller decision applies retroactively.

Those advocates arguing in favor of retroactivity say that juveniles cannot be held to the same societal standard as adults -- that they are not emotionally mature, and that because of that, they fail to recognize the consequences of their actions.

But those on the opposite side say that making Miller retroactive, and applying it to defendants convicted years ago, is legally unsound and a violation of due process for the victims.

Further, they say, such a change in the law is unnecessary, since sentencing relief for those who have turned their lives around in prison already exists through clemency.

According to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, 40 people have been granted clemency on first- or second-degree murder convictions since 1979.

A hearing Friday

Jeffrey Cristina was uprooted from his home in Brookline after his parents divorced in the mid-1970s and he moved with his mother to Lawrenceville.

Although he had never been in trouble before, he fell in with the wrong crowd, said his niece, Heather Taylor.

On Dec. 10, 1975, Frank Slazinski, an 82-year-old retired steelworker, had just returned to his Butler Street apartment after being released from the hospital.

About 9 that night, officers found his door open, and Slazinski lying inside, badly beaten.

He died four days later.

During the investigation into Slazinski's death, Cristina and others implicated gave varying statements to police. At trial, Cristina testified he attempted to rob the man but fled before the victim was beaten.

Still, he was found guilty of second-degree murder. …