In its ruling prohibiting life without parole sentences for under-age killers, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has codified into law the same denial of judicial discretion the U.S. Supreme Court endeavored to correct in a 2012 ruling on juvenile justice.
And in its attempt to protect the rights of killers, the SJC has done a severe injustice to the families of victims of juvenile murderers.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama ruled 5-4 that mandatory life in prison without parole sentences for murderers under age 18 violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan noted that juveniles, due to their physical and emotional immaturity, are prone to dangerous and rash behaviors. Such mandatory sentences prevent a judge from weighing the facts of the specific case.
“Such mandatory penalties, by their nature, preclude a sentencer from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it,” Kagan wrote. “Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other — the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one.”
Earlier high court cases had prohibited capital punishment for juveniles and mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youthful offenders in non-homicide crimes. Kagan noted that it is difficult in such cases to distinguish between offenders whose crimes reflect “unfortunate yet transient immaturity” and those resulting from “irreparable corruption.”
“Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison,” Kagan wrote.
Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment. The SJC ruled that all sentences of life without parole, whether mandatory or discretionary, are unconstitutional.
“Simply put, because the brain of a juvenile is not fully developed, either structurally or functionally, by the age of 18, a judge cannot find with confidence that a particular offender, at that point in time, is irretrievably depraved,” the court said.
The court wrote that a sentence of life without parole is “strikingly similar” to the death penalty, which the court has previously determined to be unconstitutional. That view may come as a surprise to those offenders in other states who plea-bargained down to a sentence of life without parole to avoid a death sentence.
The SJC’s ruling is retroactive, meaning that there are some 63 convicted murderers in Massachusetts who now find themselves eligible for parole. Nine of these killers hail from Essex County. Among them are Richard Baldwin, who was 16 in 1992 when he bludgeoned 16-year-old Beth Brodie of Groveland to death with a baseball bat.
Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett criticized the ruling, arguing that, while he and other prosecutors do not dispute that teen brains are different from those of adults, that is already factored into decisions on whether to charge a teenager with first-degree murder.
“There are some crimes that are so abhorrent and so heinous a juvenile should be sentenced to life without parole,” Blodgett said. “We don’t charge first-degree murder unless the facts are so heinous and horrible that it warrants a first-degree charge.”
The SJC ruling will also impact the case of Philip Chism, the Danvers High student charged with the murder of teacher Colleen Ritzer of Andover. If convicted, Chism’s sentence would include the possibility of parole.
In a statement, the Ritzer family said it felt betrayed that the SJC showed more concern for the rights of killers than compassion for their victims.
“This decision should not be applauded, rather overturned as an act of justice and humanity to victims of violent crimes and their families,” the family said.
While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers is defensible, the SJC’s decision prohibits judges from considering the nature of the crime and the maturity of the perpetrator in determining a sentence. That is a denial of justice to the families of the victims of these heinous crimes.