Massachusetts Criminal Penalties Should Increase For Violent Offenders, District Attorneys and Victims Advocates Say

Ten years ago this summer, a horrifying story came to pass on Cape Cod. It represented the penultimate fear of anyone whose car has ever broken down, and is seeking help. A young woman named Melissa Gosule was driving on Cape Cod in July 1999 near the Cape Cod Canal when her car broke down. She accepted a ride from a man named Michael Gentile – who apparently seemed unthreatening to her – and was never again seen alive. Eight days later, her body was found in a shallow grave. Gentile is serving a life sentence for the crime. As horrific as that story is, it gets worse: Gentile had been convicted of at least 20 previous violent crimes, and was walking free at the time he abducted and killed Ms. Gosule.

A legislative bill now dubbed “Melissa’s Bill”, after Ms. Gosule, has now been introduced into the Massachusetts Legislature that that would create a “three strikes” form of punishment for habitual violent offenders. A similar bill was filed in previous legislative sessions, but lawmakers deemed the penalties too severe. Prosecutors supporting the present bill, and state Representative Brad Hill of Ipswich, who sponsored the bill, said the new version has been revised to make exceptions for nonviolent offenders, thus making passage more likely. Middlesex County District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr. has taken the prosecutorial lead in promoting this bill, commenting that “This new version of ‘Melissa’s Bill,’ while addressing previous concerns, is consistent with its mission to assure greater transparency, accountability, and truth in sentencing for dangerous repeat offenders.” We have also closed additional legal loopholes that would have ensured that Melissa’s murderer, whose 27 convictions resulted in a mere two years served in prison, would not have been free to abduct and kill Melissa.”
Leone said the new bill requires that defendants who are convicted of a third felony in three separate offenses be punished with the maximum sentence allowed for the third crime, as opposed to a mandatory life sentence, as the previous bill called for. Another major problem with the prior iteration, was that misdemeanor offenses were counted in the “three strikes” language. In my professional opinion as a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, that provision was overly-broad and too severe. The new bill applies only to those who have committed serious felonies; proponents also argue that this new iteration is fairer because it would not depend on judges’ previous sentences, but rather on the specific crimes committed.

The bill would also put an end to what critics of the current sentencing system refer to as “package deals.” These current sentencing options permit defendants who commit new crimes to combine the charges and receive concurrent sentences for each crime. Under the new bill, sentences imposed on the new crimes would run consecutively. It would also prohibit probation for defendants who commit a new felony while free on a suspended sentence, and mandate that the defendant serve the suspended sentence after a finding of probable cause for the new crime.

The bill has been referred to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Heidi Gosule, Melissa’s sister, who now serves as a prosecutor in Leone’s office, said she hopes the changes will be enough for the bill to pass finally. In a written statement, Ms. Gosule said, “We are fighting for this bill in memory of my sister and other victims like her”. “We are truly hopeful that this bill will pass in what is the 10th year since Melissa’s death and assure that victims will be better protected for years to come.” With the right legal and constitutional safeguards, I don’t think anyone can argue against that. I’m a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, and I know I won’t.