The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


August 15, 2012

Judge: No need to reconsider sentences for teen killers

SUNBURY — Robert Sacavage, the Northumberland County president judge who served as district attorney when 17-year-old Norman Gundrum Jr. was sentenced to life without parole for the 1993 killing of Bobby Coup, said that despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision calling into question the validity of life sentences for juvenile offenders, there has never been much public sympathy for juvenile killers.

“There was no outcry at the time or now,” Sacavage said of young killers serving life such as Gundrum and Brandon Brown — who was 15 when he killed Jasmine Stoud, 6, in 2001 in Coal Township. “I find it troubling that these old cases keep coming back and we have to hear them decades later.”

More than 17 years after his case was decided by a jury, Gundrum, now 35 and serving his time at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township, hopes to reduce his life sentence by arguing that the penalty is unconstitutional and should be overturned.

Pennsylvania has more people serving life sentences due to convictions as juveniles than any other state. Numbers compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures indicate there are more than 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide — 480 of them in Pennsylvania.

District Attorney Anthony Rosini opposes Gundrum’s bid for a new sentence, arguing in part that his appeals have been exhausted and the U.S. Supreme Court decision does not apply retroactively.

Northumberland County special counsel Michael Seward said Gundrum should not have to die in prison for a decision he made as a 15-year-old boy.

“When do you decide to throw a life away?” asked Seward, who has been appointed to represent Gundrum in appealing his mandatory life sentence.

Gundrum was 15 when he stabbed Coup, 18, of Milton, to death in December 1993.

He was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated assault in 1995 and sent to prison for life without parole after a Northumberland County jury voted not to put him to death.

“Kids were put to death in this country up until a few years ago,” Sacavage said, referring to the March 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision barring juveniles from death row.

He said the ban against capital punishment for minors was the catalyst for the latest court ruling regarding juveniles and mandatory life terms.

Northumberland County Judge Charles H. Saylor is hearing the appeal, but is awaiting a pending Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision on a similar case.

If the decision prohibiting mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles may be applied retroactively, Seward said, Gundrum wants a new sentencing hearing.

Seward said judges should have discretion when sentencing juveniles.

“It’s easy for people to look at (murder cases) and decide (offenders) should be put away for life, but it’s not that simple when you look at what the person was going through in his life at the time,” he said.

Seward argued that studies show teen brains aren’t fully developed and their ability to reason is reduced, so minors convicted of a crime shouldn’t be subjected to mandatory life in prison.

At his January 1995 sentencing hearing in Northumberland County Court, Gundrum testified that he was sexually assaulted repeatedly by Jack Harclerode, then a Bucknell University professor, who lured him as a child with offers of money and gifts, and two other men a few years later.

After he was sentenced to life in prison, state police investigated his claims and two of the men, Lester Hunt and Harry Young, each pleaded guilty to corruption of a minor. Police were unable to prove Gundrum’s claims against Harclerode, but years later, in 2008, Harclerode was convicted of molesting a 10-year-old boy at a Columbia County campground. More charges followed, and Harclerode is now serving a 10-year-sentence for sexually assaulting a young boy in the mid-1990s.

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