NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

January 6, 2014

Our view: State court makes wrong call on juvenile murderers

(Continued)

“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.

We agree.

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.

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