The grief has never really gone away for Cathy Lingenfelter. It will be rekindled again when she attends a hearing in Erie County Common Pleas Court on Friday.
Lingenfelter, 61, is the aunt of Lila Ebright, the 5-year-old Erie girl murdered by her 17-year-old neighbor, Scott A. Schroat, in April 1992 in one of Erie's most notorious killings.
Schroat, now 47, has twice been sentenced to life without parole for his guilty plea to first-degree murder in November 1992.
As a "juvenile lifer" — a defendant sentenced to life with no parole for a murder committed when he was younger than 18 — Schroat has been able to seek reprieves in court.
Schroat remains in state prison. But due to a Pennsylvania Superior Court ruling in March that set aside his life sentence with no parole, he will have his third sentencing hearing on Friday.
Lingenfelter will be there, just as she was present at the other two sentencing hearings.
Once more, she said, she will listen to District Attorney Elizabeth Hirz argue that Schroat should be incarcerated for the rest of his life, with no chance of getting out before he dies.
Once more, Lingefelter will convey her views — this time, most likely via a letter, Hirz said.
And once more, Lingenfelter and her family will listen to a defense lawyer argue that Schroat deserves a chance at freedom.
"We have to sit there with a heavy heart and an aching soul," Lingenfelter said. "It is heart-wrenching to have to listen to this again."
Supreme Court alters course of 'juvenile lifer' cases
In December 1992, Erie County Judge Shad Connelly, now retired, gave Schroat what was then a mandatory sentence of life without parole for first-degree murder.
Through his guilty plea a month earlier, Schroat admitted that he stabbed and strangled Lila and placed her lifeless body in a banana box to hide the murder.
Schroat and Lila were living across the street from each other on Seneca Street, just west of Franklin Avenue on Erie's far east side. Her body was eventually found in a dumpster at a nearby housing project.
Connelly's sentence stood until the U.S. Supreme Court started to change the law for juvenile lifers in 2012.
The Supreme Court ruled mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court said defendants can still receive sentences of life with no parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, but that such sentences for juveniles cannot be mandatory and must be rare.
The Supreme Court decision eventually led to a resentencing hearing for Schroat before Erie County John J. Mead on Aug. 1, 2019. Mead heard evidence and testimony. He heard arguments from the District Attorney's Office, who wanted Schroat resentenced to life without parole, and Schroat's lawyer, Emily Merski, who asked for a lesser sentence.
Mead issued his ruling in October 2019. He resentenced Schroat to life without parole. Schroat "does not have the capacity for change," Mead said in a written opinion.
A three-judge panel of the state Superior Court overturned Mead on March 15. In a decision designated as precedent, the panel sent the case back to Mead for another resentencing hearing. The panel said that, in finding Schroat "permanently incorrigible," Mead failed to give enough consideration to mitigating factors the defense presented in arguing for a sentence of less than life without parole.
The resentencing hearing was originally scheduled for Aug. 1. It was moved to Friday as Hirz and Merski, the defense lawyer, prepared their respective cases.
Scott Schroat's case under review, again
Mead is not required to rule on Friday. Based on how he handled the first resentencing, he will announce his decision later in another written opinion to explain his reasoning. Sometime after the hearing, Hirz said, she and Merski will file briefs with Mead to summarize their positions as he drafts his opinion.
The law allows Mead to sentence Schroat again to life without parole. But in making his decision, Mead must show he fully considered all the relevant factors in revisiting a sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders.
At Friday's resentencing hearing, the defense and prosecution will offer arguments based on the evidence they presented at the first resentencing, Hirz said.
Schroat testified at that hearing, saying he is "a different person," but he also contended that Lila's death was an accident despite the evidence otherwise.
'It is very difficult,' Lila Ebright's aunt says
Lingenfelter, who has has been in touch with Hirz, said she is preparing herself to hear arguments on Friday similar to those made at the first resentencing hearing — including arguments by the defense.
"It is very difficult," Lingenfelter said about returning to court. "Our family is appalled that we have to do this again — listen to him or his counsel say that he has changed and is rehabilitable. He is not."
Schroat has been incarcerated for about 30 years and is at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, in Centre County. He is one of nine juvenile lifers from Erie County, but only one of two who have been resentenced to life with no possibility of parole instead of getting lesser sentences.
The other defendant is Raynard S. Green, who was 17 when he beat to death 89-year-old Harriet Mikielski in Erie in 1978.
Erie County Judge Daniel Brabender resentenced Green to life without parole in March 2018. A three-judge panel of the state Superior Court unanimously affirmed the sentence in June 2019. Green, 61, is at the State Correctional Institution at Albion.
Lingenfelter said she wanted Mead's decision in the Schroat case to stand. Asked if Mead was correct in resentencing Schroat to life with no parole, Lingenfelter said: "Absolutely."
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Erie 'juvenile lifer': 5-year-old victim's family faces new resentencing