When he was sentenced to life without parole in 1979, Henry Smolarski was a 17-year-old prep school student in Philadelphia. He was convicted of stabbing and killing a college freshman in the chest (he thought the student was someone who had robbed him earlier) and was told he’d never see freedom again.
Thirty-seven years later, Smolarski, 53, is getting a second chance. On Friday, he and another man serving life without parole for a crime he committed as a minor received new sentences in a Philadelphia court. They are now eligible for parole and could be released in as soon as a few months.
It’s a major turn of events for Philadelphia, which has locked up more young people for life without the chance of parole than any other city in the country. According to local officials, there are 300 people serving life without parole for crimes they committed in Philadelphia younger than 18 years old. About a third of those have been incarcerated more than 30 years; Joseph Ligon, the oldest, has been living behind bars for the last 63 years.
Now prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys are going one-by-one through the list to re-sentence them. Smolarski and Tyrone James, a 59-year-old convicted of murder in 1973, were the first. They both received new sentences of 35 years to life, which means they are immediately eligible for parole.
The drive to reform the system comes from a pair of recent Supreme Court decisions. In the 2014 case Miller v. Alabama, the Court found that automatically sentencing juveniles to life without parole was unconstitutional, citing neuroscience research confirming that the adolescent brain is still developing. Then in January, the justices made that decision retroactive in a case called Montgomery v. Louisiana.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has spearheaded the re-sentencing process. "It's my goal to give all of these individuals some light at the end of the tunnel," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "As long as I'm the D.A., we will not be asking for cases going forward for life without the possibility of parole for people under the age of 18 because of the same exact reasons articulated by the Supreme Court in Miller."
He said he would seek sentences of 20 to 35 years in most cases. That means that many of the lifers—who have already served that long—would immediately be eligible for parole. However, he didn’t rule out asking judges to keep some defendants in prison for life in the most heinous cases.
Williams’ decision shows the power that district attorneys can have in our criminal justice system. One of the reasons Philadelphia has such a high number of young people sentenced to life without parole was its zealous top attorney from 1991 to 2010, Lynne Abraham, was known as the country's "deadliest D.A." for her drive for death penalty prosecutions. Many life without parole sentences in her era came as plea bargains for defendants who wanted to avoid the death penalty. (In addition, a state law passed in 1995 mandated that all children charged with homicide in Pennsylvania be tried as adults.) Now, Williams' willingness to ask for lower sentences could go a long way to helping some of the defendants who have served for decades go free.
But the defendants won't be immediately released. After they are re-sentenced and eligible for parole, lifers must apply to the state Board of Probation and Parole, which considers inmates’ criminal histories, disciplinary records, and input from victims' families and wardens in deciding whether they can be immediately released. As part of an agreement, the D.A.’s office will ask the board to immediately release Smolarski and James.
Bradley Bridges, an assistant public defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said that the prosecutor's office could be doing more to speed inmates' release. They could ask for a sentence of time served, which would mean lifers would be let out of prison that day, without the state board being involved. "This is a step in the right direction," he told me, but "I'm troubled by the fact that the prosecutor would simply kick the decision about release to the Board of Probation."
At Smolarski's re-sentencing hearing on Friday, 20 friends and family—including men who had been incarcerated with him in the past—came to support him. He presented letters from former prison wardens saying he had been a model inmate, and apologized for his crime.
Burton Rose, Smolarski’s lawyer, told me he thought his client could be released by the end of the summer. (Bridges says the Board of Probation could take longer, maybe six months to a year.) If he's released Smolarski will live with his mother, and he already has a job offer.
“He really has remorse over what he did as a teenager,” Rose said. “He’s been living with it all his life.”
In the almost four decades Smolarski has been incarcerated, Rose said, he had no major disciplinary violations and had taken every opportunity he had to improve his life and help other inmates. “He had no reason to expect he would ever see the light of day, yet he committed himself to a complete rehabilitation process,” Rose said. “He has been a stellar inmate.”
Even the family of Smolarski’s victim, Neal Sherman, supports parole. During the hearing, Smolarski tearfully apologized to Ralph Sherman, Neal’s brother, who was in attendance.
Sherman—who is now a criminal defense attorney in Connecticut—told me in an email that he hopes his brother's killer will be released.
“He has already served more than 35 years, about two thirds of his life, in prison,” Sherman said. “I believe the world will be a better place if he is paroled, at age 53.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.