NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 24, 2014

Easing the pain for victims' families

From Wire Reports
Newburyport Daily News

---- — BOSTON — As the family of a 15-year-old girl murdered by her 16-year-old boyfriend looked on, a group of Massachusetts lawmakers proposed legislation yesterday that would require juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to serve a minimum of 35 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole.

The bill comes in response to recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, said the bill is aimed at giving some sense of justice to the families of murder victims who thought the people who killed their loved ones would stay in prison for the rest of their lives. As a result of the SJC decision, juveniles convicted of murder could be eligible for parole in as little as 15 years.

“The Supreme Court said that it is cruel and unusual punishment that a juvenile would have to spend their life behind bars without parole, but it is also cruel and unusual punishment that after only 15 years and every 5 years thereafter, a victim’s family would have to relive such a horrible tragedy,” Finegold said.

Currently, first-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole, even for juveniles.

“While it’s not an ideal situation, we hope it will bring some measure of comfort to the victims’ families that they won’t have to go before the Parole Board for 35 years,” Finegold said.

Tarr said the bill — which mirrors a proposal made by state prosecutors — seeks to ensure the new penalty would be deemed constitutional under the recent court rulings while making sure juveniles who commit murder receive appropriate sentences. He said that in addition to the 35-year minimum, the bill would also require the state Parole Board, in order to grant parole, to find that the juvenile did not have the mental state of an adult when the crime was committed.

As a result of the SJC ruling, approximately 63 people who were convicted of first-degree murder as juveniles will now be eligible for parole, including nine in Essex County.

The SJC explicitly stated that it was within the rights of the Legislature to treat juveniles convicted of first-degree murder more harshly than those found guilty of other crimes, such as second-degree murder. Senators said the bill reflects their best attempt to strike a balance between the constitutionality of sentencing and holding juveniles accountable for their crimes.

Finegold chose to file the bill after the parents of Colleen Ritzer, the 24-year-old Danvers High School teacher murdered by a 14-year-old student, reached out to him upset by the court’s ruling. Finegold read a statement from the Ritzer family, who said the bill would be a “significant improvement” over the court’s decision.

Kellie Schaffer, the sister of Beth Brodie, a 15-year-old from Groveland who was beaten to death with an aluminum baseball bat in 1992 by a 16-year-old boy she’d dated several times, said the SJC ruling “feels like a slap in the face.”

“I don’t believe we should be forced to relive our tragedy again,” she said. “Our murdered loved ones deserve better than that. They deserve justice.”

Some defense lawyers have urged caution in responding to the court rulings.

“Judges need to have some discretion on where to set parole eligibility based on the individual young person, their background and the circumstances of the offenses,” said Joshua Dohan, director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency.

“I understand where it’s coming from. Everybody feels for the families that have had to go through this and there’s nothing you can do to make that better for them. But when it comes to then how do you deal with the youthful offender, the answer is no, this is not fair,” Dohan said. “It needs to be after a reasonable term. Thirty-five years is not reasonable.”