On Friday morning, the rain fell outside the large windows in Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart’s courtroom on the seventh floor of the Juanita Kidd Stout Criminal Justice Center in downtown Philadelphia. A thin layer of acoustic paneling lines every wall except one, whose large windows look out onto the northern face of City Hall.
The best place to sit is all the way in the back—though from that position, I ended up having to strain a bit to hear what was being said, since folks rarely seemed to use their microphones and two-thirds of the participants in the drama were facing the judge on his pedestal. But from the back I could see and hear the assembled crowd murmuring, exchanging looks, sharing the furtive whispers that assigned meaning to the unfolding scene. The crowd lacked the ease and familiarity of fellow parishioners, but some people here clearly knew one another, like the young man in the couture sweatshirt who gave the elderly woman seated next to him a quick look before standing up and approaching the bar just a few minutes before 10 AM.
He was sworn in by a leathery bailiff with forearms covered in Irish crosses, and the morning’s first sentencing hearing began.
In November 2015, a raid of the house where the defendant had been living turned up two thousand grams of cocaine, 167 packets of heroin, and seven separate firearms. The defendant had been under house arrest since then.
“What’s the Offense Gravity Score?” the judge asked.
“Thirteen, your honor.”
“One, your honor—a misdemeanor.”
The lawyers, judges, and clerks looked down at the paperwork.
“And the prior record score?”
The assistant DA, noting the guns and the heroin, asked for “five to ten,” while the defense—including impassioned testimony by the defendant’s mother pinning the drugs and the guns on the defendant’s brother—argued that his record, plus his conduct in the years since the arrest, plus the time spent on house arrest, is punishment enough.
All eyes swiveled to Minehart, an older white man with a wide-set, expressive face. Possession with intent to deliver, he repeated. “That’s 66 to 84 years.” The crowd murmured.
“Months, your honor,” the ADA said quickly.
The judge apologized. Then: “I’m going to give him a discount. I’ll take 24 months off. So that’s 42 to, uh, what?”
Some silence as the numbers were crunched.
“Three-point-five to seven, your honor,” the ADA offered.
The defense attorney repeated the charges, explained the sentence, and told the defendant that he would have 10 days to appeal.
“Good luck to you, sir,” Minehart said. The defendant was led out a side door by a sheriff’s deputy. As the door swung shut, I caught a glimpse of a hallway lined with yellow-painted cinder blocks. There’s another building inside this one, I realized, one whose hallways and elevator shafts are parallel to the ones used by those without shackles on our hands or on our belts.
The whole thing took less than half an hour.
Most of the assembled crowd—myself included—were here for a different case. Not a sentencing, but a resentencing—an opportunity for Judge Minehart to revisit a decision made by one of his colleagues 21 years ago.
On February 20, 1998, Shariff Ingram stepped out of a Chinese takeout restaurant on 53rd Street and Woodland Avenue in West Philadelphia, pulled out a pistol, and fired three shots into a Jeep, hitting and killing the driver, a man named Lonnie Lee. Ingram was arrested two days later, and on January 13, 1999, he was found guilty of first-degree murder by Judge Anne Lazarus and given a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Ingram was fifteen years old at the time of the murder, sixteen by the time his sentence was handed down. He was sent to the maximum-security state prison at Graterford. He was five foot six and weighed 143 pounds.
In 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional, noting that adolescence is characterized by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.” In 2016, they found that their ruling applied retroactively, making 2,000 men and women across the country eligible to be re-sentenced. At the time, Pennsylvania had 520 “juvenile lifers”—more than any other state in the country, according to the Juvenile Law Center. Of those 520, more than 300 were from Philadelphia County.
In the years that followed, over 410 of Pennsylvania’s juvenile lifers have been re-sentenced, according to the DOC, and 184 have been released; those remaining, in the AP’s words, “have served less time and have less of a prison record to assess, or they have mental illnesses or a history of prison violations.”
Ingram fit the bill on all three. Born on April 15, 1982, he’s 45 years younger than the oldest juvenile lifer (Joseph Ligon, born 1937); he was diagnosed with depression as a child and a young adult, and had been charged with—and convicted of—a number of assaults in the two decades he’s spent in prison.
“I am not sure how the courts will look at my violent history in here when I go to get resentenced,” he wrote in a 2017 letter published by the American Prison Writing Initiative, where he noted that he’s spent a total of nine years in solitary confinement.
“I don’t know if they can understand the mind of a 15-year-old kid trying to navigate this jungle. For those who know me, they commend me for not letting these places destroy me…But the courts? I am not so sure how they will look to these matters. I have about 8 or 9 years of time spent in solitary confinement. Fighting guards, stabbings…in here, the more violent you are, the more respected you are and the more you are left alone.”
Just before noon, the door opened and Ingram was brought into the courtroom, wearing shackles and a cranberry jumpsuit. A heavy man, he looked out at the crowd briefly, his face expressionless, before taking a seat next to his attorneys. For much of the rest of the proceedings, all we could see was the back of his close-cropped head.
Chesley Lightsey, the assistant district attorney in charge of the case, stood up and argued that Ingram’s prison record is “unusual,” demonstrative of “assaultive behavior.” As the state’s representative, it fell to Lightsey to ask the court to vacate the 1999 sentence and impose a new one: in this case, Lightsey asked the judge to resentence Ingram—who has spent 21 years in prison—to 29 years to life.
“Shariff Ingram is not ready. And that’s the Commonwealth’s position.”
Lightsey then proceeded to introduce the victim’s family to the court. Seven months before he was killed, Lonnie Lee’s fiancée, Alyce, had given birth to a daughter, Aloni; Lee had had her name tattooed in large letters across his back. First Alyce, then Aloni, sat with Lightsey as she reads out their letters to the court. “Lonnie’s loss,” she read, as Aloni sat crying next to her, “is a personal life sentence.” Ingram cried as Lightsey read.
The defense asked the judge to consider the case on very different grounds. For them, the murder and the subsequent convictions told a different story, one in which Lee was not a kind-hearted family man but a ruthless drug dealer, one in which Ingram was not an “assaultive” murderer but a scared kid, terrified that the 24-year-old man he had been dealing drugs for was coming down the street with plans to murder him.
Ingram, attorney Bree Archambault says, “mourns for the devastation” he’s caused Lee’s family and their community and has turned his life around in prison. “He wants to mentor other young people. He is no longer that 15-year-old boy.”
Ingram’s mother and sister spoke, as did corrections officers from Chester. Minehart cut their testimony short, asking bluntly whether they’d seen Ingram change: they all said he had. Dan Stevenson, Ingram’s public defender at the time of the murder, told the court that he was “haunted” by the case and his recommendation to waive a jury trial, believing the judge would find Ingram guilty of third-degree murder, or perhaps even involuntary manslaughter. (In cross-examination, Lightsey pointed out that there was never any proof that Lee had threatened Ingram, nor had he been carrying a weapon at the time of the shooting.)
Before reading his statement, Ingram asked to face Lee’s family, but they declined. “There’s no way to justify what I have done,” he said through tears, facing Minehart. “I am truly sorry for taking a son away from his mother.”
All eyes back to Minehart, who noted how young Ingram was at the time of the crime. He asked him to stand, and then, for an agonizing minute, consulted with the lawyers and the court officers about the correct filing designation for the case. He then announced that would grant the defense’s request, resentencing Ingram to 21 years to life, making him immediately eligible for parole.