SALEM — Essex County prosecutors will meet Monday to begin the process of preparing for parole hearings for nine convicted killers whose life sentences without parole were wiped away by the state’s highest court on Tuesday.
The nine, who were all teenagers under the age of 18 at the time of the murders, were made eligible for parole in the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision. Two others, convicted since 2007, will also someday get a chance at parole.
Now, decades after families of victims were reassured that their loved ones’ killers would never see the outside of a prison, District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office is facing the prospect of tracking down those relatives to give them the news.
“Massachusetts prides itself on being enlightened on victims’ rights,” a clearly frustrated Blodgett said yesterday. “And yet this decision comes out on Christmas Eve day? That’s a pretty tough, bitter pill to swallow for victims’ families who thought that these cases had been put to rest.”
Going forward, the decision also affects sentencing options for Philip Chism, the 14-year-old Danvers boy charged in October with the murder of teacher Colleen Ritzer, 24, of Andover.
The court’s ruling, in the case of Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 when he stabbed a man as he sat in a car in Boston’s Kenmore Square in 1981, held that sentences of life without parole failed to take into account a young defendant’s likelihood of being rehabilitated.
It’s a ruling that goes beyond the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Miller vs. Alabama, said Blodgett, who was recently elected to serve as head of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.
The Miller decision, like the SJC ruling, pointed to recent research showing that the brains of teenagers are still developing, and concluded that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment to summarily sentence someone to life without parole under those circumstances.
But the Massachusetts court went further, said Blodgett. While the federal ruling required only that juvenile killers get a hearing on the issue of whether they can be rehabilitated, the SJC decision does not require such a proceeding.
Blodgett notes that prior to a change in the law that allowed teens age 14 and over to be tried as adults in murder cases, all of the convicted killers were given “transfer hearings,” where the issue of whether they were suitable candidates for rehabilitation was evaluated by a judge based on testimony from doctors and others.
Blodgett said 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.
“We’ve always understood that,” said Blodgett. “That’s why district attorneys have robust juvenile and young adult offender diversion programs, to give recognition to the fact that juveniles sometimes make mistakes.
“There are some crimes that are so abhorrent and so heinous a juvenile should be sentenced to life without parole,” said Blodgett. “We don’t charge first-degree murder unless the facts are so heinous and horrible that it warrants a first-degree charge.”
The cases he and his prosecutors will have to reopen and prepare for arguments to the Parole Board — hearings Blodgett has been told will happen “sooner rather than later” — involve crimes that were planned, and involved stalking, atrocity or the infliction of pain.
“We’re not talking about a kid stealing a car, or a drug rip-off,” said Blodgett. “We’re talking about kids committing some of the most heinous crimes you can imagine.”
Yet, even as he acknowledges that teen brains are still developing, Blodgett is concerned that there is no scientific consensus on when a brain is fully developed. Some experts believe the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25, for example, and when the drinking age was returned to 21 in the 1980s, much of the argument for that move was based on the notion that brains are developed by that age.
The SJC also concluded that its decision would be applied retroactively and that the offenders will receive immediate parole eligibility if they have served at least 15 years — even as legislators discuss proposals to create a longer period of time for parole eligibility.
Conceivably, said the district attorney, some killers found guilty of first-degree murder as juveniles could end up doing less time than an adult convicted of second-degree murder, which has long carried parole eligibility at 15 years, or even manslaughter, which carries up to a 20-year sentence.
Eligible for parole These are some of the teen killers who could win parole following Tuesday's SJC ruling. Alfred Brown of Topsfield was 15 when he shot his parents, Wilfred and Yoshika Brown, and his sister, Dorina, shortly after his mother asked to see his report card in January 1978. Brown used a rifle his father had given to him as a gift to kill them all in the family's home. John Jones was 17 when he and a 16-year-old co-defendant planned to rob and kill Donald Pinkham on "Dead Man's Way" in Gloucester in October 1982. Pinkham was burned and bludgeoned with a rock during the attack. Jose Tevenal was 16 when he took part in the robbery of a Lawrence cab driver in February 1985. After being handed some money by the cab driver, Tevenal fired six shots into the driver's head, killing him. Joshua Halbert and John Nichypor were teenagers who, along with a third teen, Kevin Pierce, went to the Gloucester home of 38-year-old David McLane in September 1988, with the intention of "rolling" him because of McLane's sexual orientation. They beat him and slashed his throat. Richard Baldwin was a 16-year-old who had recently moved from Groveland to Peabody when he asked a friend to help him persuade Beth Brodie, 16, a girl he'd dated a few times, to go out with him again. On Nov. 18, 1992, Baldwin entered Brodie's home in Groveland, then attacked her with a baseball bat, striking her twice in the head. Jamie Fuller was 16 when he lured his girlfriend, 14-year-old Amy Carnevale, to the rear of the Memorial Middle School in Beverly, where he stabbed her, slashed her throat and stomped on her head in August 1991. He then enlisted friends to help him dump Carnevale's body, weighted down with cinder blocks, in Shoe Pond. Christopher Berry was 16 when, after a night of drinking and drug use, he was kicked out of his family's Saugus home in 1987. He broke into the home of a neighbor, an 87-year-old widow, and stabbed her multiple times. Before he left, he put out a cigarette on her forehead. Compiled from court decisions and newspaper accounts.