The PA Legislature Never Created A Life Without Parole Sentence, So Why Did the Courts Invent One?

Morrease Leftwich, CLS ’22

Abdullah Muhammad filed a Habeas Corpus petition in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania this summer.[1] He is seeking relief from a sentence imposed by the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and upheld by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. In his state appeal and in his Habeas Corpus petition, he makes a number of arguments which point to alleged improper behavior on behalf of the trial court. However, it is my opinion that his most meritorious argument has to do with a parole restriction the trial court imposed, which seems to be unauthorized under the text of the court’s supporting statute.

In 2014, the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County convicted Muhammad of first degree murder. In the court’s opinion, the trial judge held that Muhammad was sentenced in accordance with 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102. [2] §1102 governs first degree murder sentencing; it allows the jury in such cases to decide between life imprisonment and death. [3] In the case of Muhammad, the government did not seek death. Considering the plain text of § 1102, it is reasonable to believe Muhammad’s sentence would be life imprisonment: “shall be sentenced to death or to a term of life imprisonment…” Instead, the court held, “where the Commonwealth did not seek the death penalty, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was a mandatory sentence.”[4]

On review, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania upheld the parole restriction, framing it as an issue regarding 42 Pa.C.S. § 9756, [5] which requires that trial courts attach a minimum sentence to any sentence of total confinement. [6] This minimum sentence serves as a mandatory term of confinement, during which an inmate is not eligible for parole.[7] To justify an exemption from this rule, the Superior Court quoted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Hudson v. Pa. Board of Probation and Parole, which held that “the sole statutory directive for courts in imposing a minimum term of total confinement does not apply to mandatory life sentences.”[8] In Hudson, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was adjudicating another challenge to a parole restriction.[9] To justify that trial court’s seemingly unauthorized parole restriction, [10] the Pennsylvania Supreme Court pointed to § 9756(c).[11] However, the problem is that the version the Court cited to is twenty-one years old.[12] The current version of § 9756(c) reads:


The court may impose a sentence to imprisonment without the right to parole under this subsection only when:(1) a summary offense is charged; (2) sentence is imposed for nonpayment of fines or costs, or both, in which case the sentence shall specify the number of days to be served; and (3) the maximum term or terms of imprisonment imposed on one or more indictments to run consecutively or concurrently total less than 30 days.[13]


In the Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion, however, § 9756(c) begins, “[e]xcept in the case of murder of the first degree, the court may impose…”[14] Assuming the Court wouldn’t purposely misquote the statute, I reviewed older versions and found that such language which the Court imputed to § 9756(c) was last found in the 1999 version of the statute.[15] Given my understanding of the gravity of a life without parole sentence, this error is troubling to say the least.

That said, I do not believe that the change to § 9756 shows the legislature’s intent to make inmates like Muhammad parole eligible. Instead, I believe it only goes to show that the courts have no right to impose a parole restriction. Thus, I agree with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s reliance on the other statute it cited: 61 Pa.C.S. § 6137.[16] That statute is directed to the Parole Board and it denies the Board the right to parole inmates serving life sentences.[17] In the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s opinion in Hudson, § 6137 was properly applied – the defendant brought a challenge to the Parole Board’s denial of the defendant’s parole application, instead of a challenge to a sentence.[18]

However, in the Superior Court’s opinion in Muhammad’s case, reliance on § 6137 and Hudson was misplaced. The fact that the legislature intends for the Parole Board to deny parole to Muhammad does not authorize the courts to preempt the parole board from doing just that. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is no different from the United States in that its governmental underpinning is the separation of powers. Accordingly, the Pennsylvania courts should clean up its jurisprudence on parole restrictions under 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102 sentencing. In this day-in-age, where criminal justice reform has already gained tank-like traction, it is reasonable to suspect that the Pennsylvania legislature may amend its statutory scheme to allow for the parole of reformed inmates serving life sentences, specifically by amendment of 61 Pa.C.S. § 6137.

My concern is that if the courts persist in upholding statutorily unauthorized life without parole sentences, those sentences will shield inmates like Muhammad from the lawful effects of such progressive statutory amendments.[19] The Pennsylvania courts clearly believe they are executing the legislative plan. However, by doing so, they will prevent future legislation from having its intended effect, thus standing in the way of legislative choice. Staying silent, except to execute the text of the statutes, would be a more effective way to implement the legislative plan. In the case of Muhammad’s Habeas Corpus petition, the U.S. District Court should make clear to the Pennsylvania courts that it recognizes its error and is willing to correct it in lieu of their own motivation to do so.




[1] Petition for Habeas Corpus, Muhammad v. Ransom, No. 20-4313 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 31, 2020)

[2] Commonwealth v. Muhammad, No. CP-51-Cr-0005853-2012, at *12 (Phila. C.P. Dec. 23, 2014) (written opinion filed Oct. 5, 2018).

[3] 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102(a)(1) (2020) (“[A] person who has been convicted of a murder of the first degree or of murder of a law enforcement officer of the first degree shall be sentenced to death or to a term of life imprisonment in accordance with 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711 (relating to sentencing procedure for murder of the first degree).”); 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(a)(1) (2020) (“[T]he jury shall determine whether the defendant shall be sentenced to death or life imprisonment.”).

[4] Muhammad, No. CP-51-Cr-0005853-2012, at *12

[5] Commonwealth v. Muhammad, No. CP-51-Cr-0005853-2012, 2019 Pa. Super. LEXIS 4663, at *11 (Pa. Super. Ct. Dec. 19, 2019).

[6] 42 Pa.C.S. § 9756(b)(1) (2020).

[7] Id. at § 9756(b)(2).

[8] Muhammad, 2019 Pa. Super. LEXIS 4663, at *11 (quoting Hudson v. Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, 204 A.3d 392, 398 (Pa. 2019))

[9] Id. at 394-96 This case actually involved an inmate’s challenge to the Pennsylvania Parole Board’s denial of his application for parole. It can further be differentiated by the fact that the defendant was serving a life sentence for a second-degree murder conviction.

[10] Id. at 394-95 (The ‘parole restriction’ imposed was really just a failure on behalf of the trial court to impose a minimum sentence in accordance with 42 Pa.C.S. § 9756(b)(1)).

[11] Hudson, 204 A.3d at 398.

[12]  Compare 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9756 (2000) with 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9756 (1999).

[13] 42 Pa.C.S. § 9756(c) (2020), [].

[14] Hudson, 204 A.3d at 398.

[15] Compare 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9756 (2000) with 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9756 (1999).

[16] Hudson, 204 A.3d at 398.

[17] See 61 Pa.C.S. § 6137(a)(1) (2020) (“The board. . . may release on parole any inmate. . . except an inmate condemned to death or serving life imprisonment. . .”).

[18] Hudson, 204 A.3d, at 394.

[19] As Hudson shows, such a change in the legislative plan would still face the obstacle posed by the fact that the Pennsylvania courts almost never impose minimum sentences on defendants sentenced to life imprisonment. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Manning, 495 Pa. 652 (Pa. 1981); Commonwealth v. Yount, 419 Pa. Super. 613 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992). However, it would be easier for the legislature to impose a general minimum sentence by statute for those defendants than it would be to correct individual cases of judicial overreach on behalf of a few overzealous trial courts.