NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

January 28, 2014

Our view: Common sense changes proposed to juvenile murder law

Two local lawmakers have proposed a bill that would restore at least a measure of justice to the families of victims of juvenile killers.

On Christmas Eve, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its unconscionable ruling that under no circumstances could a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder be sentenced to life in prison without parole. The decision extended a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that mandatory life in prison sentences for juvenile killers are unconstitutional.

The SJC ruling means juvenile killers are now eligible for parole after serving 15 years. That means running the families of the victims through the emotional torment of revisiting details of the deaths of their loved ones as they fight before the Parole Board to keep their killers in prison.

State Sens. Bruce E. Tarr, R-Gloucester, and Barry Finegold, D-Andover, have filed a bill to require these juvenile killers to serve at least 35 years before being eligible for parole.

“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.

The basis of the two court rulings is that medical evidence shows the brains of juveniles are not fully developed and therefore they are prone to rash and dangerous behavior. The Supreme Court ruled that judges must take this into account when imposing sentences and cannot rely on mandatory sentencing guidelines calling for life without parole.

The Massachusetts SJC ruling eliminated this judicial discretion by ordering that all life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

The SJC ruling means that there are 63 killers in Massachusetts prisons who must now be eligible for parole after serving 15 years of their sentences. Among these is Richard Baldwin, who in 1992 when he was 16 years old murdered 15-year-old Beth Brodie of Groveland, his ex-girlfriend, with a baseball bat.

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