Massachusetts SJC Decision Barring Juvenile Life Sentences Without Parole: Good or Bad?

In my previous post on Christmas Day, I wrote briefly about the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s (SJC) decision earlier this week barring life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. The SJC’s concerned the case of Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 in 1981 when he murdered a man in Kenmore Square. He has served thirty years of a life sentence, and the court ruled that he can be considered for parole immediately.

The legal and news media are all abuzz about this decision, primarily because the decision is retroactive, meaning that juveniles previously sentenced to life in prison, can now be eligible for parole. It may also be possible to have their sentences reviewed entirely.

Is this a wise decision, based on sound medical science regarding juvenile brain development being incomplete, or is it “junk science,” ignoring the voluntary choices that these youths made to commit horrific acts of murderous violence? As with so many things in life, it depends on who you ask. Ask a doctor who leans toward a law-and-order attitude, and he or she will tell you that these youthful murderers didn’t commit the crimes they did because they were under a certain age of “development,” but rather because they are simply violent and morally depraved. Ask a liberal doctor the same question, and you’ll get an opposite answer. Ask a criminal defense lawyer, and you’ll hear that the court’s decision is a fair and just one; ask a prosecutor and you’ll hear how it strains reasoning, and how it handcuffs police and prosecutors in punishing and incarcerating dangerously violent criminals from the public.

As a Wrentham Mass. criminal defense lawyer, how do I feel about this ruling? As always, I try to make my position a balanced one. Prior to approximately a year ago, Massachusetts had some of the most strict, hard-line laws in the country when it came to sentencing juveniles convicted of Murder One: Automatic, mandatory life term in prison without the possibility of parole – the same as with adult convicts. Then, about a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that automatic, mandatory life terms in prison for juveniles was unconstitutional. Critically, however, SCOTUS’ ruling in that decision did not absolutely prohibit a judge from sentencing a juvenile convicted or murder to life in prison – it just removed the “mandatory” element of such sentencing. This meant that judges could still retain the discretion to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole, if a judge felt the circumstances of the case warranted it.

This week’s decision by the SJC went even further than the SCOTUS decision: The SJC ruled that under no circumstances can a juvenile convicted of murder be sentenced to a life term in prison with no possibility of parole.

As a Boston juvenile defense lawyer, I have to say that I think this decision is too far-reaching, and too extreme in its absolute exclusivity of such sentencing options. While I certainly agreed with and supported SCOTUS’ previous decision striking down mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles, I do believe that judges should retain the option to sentence very particular juvenile murder convicts to a life term in prison, under extreme circumstances.

Don’t be surprised. As a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, I believe powerfully that ALL criminal defendants – of whatever age – should receive a vigorous, zealous, aggressive defense in court. Every legal permissible defense should be employed, and forcefully. And if a conviction results, the case should be appealed with equal force and aggressiveness. That is precisely what I do for my own clients, and I do it forcefully. But when a jury and judge has spoken, all appeals have been exhausted, and the evidence remains that a juvenile defendant committed a horrific act of unspeakable violence, then I believe that a judge should have the legal option to sentence such a juvenile defendant to life in prison, under the appropriate circumstances.

The sole fact that someone is a juvenile (under 18, in this state) should not give that person automatic protection from being punished as someone who is over 18 is punished. That, in my professional view, is not balanced or just. If you question that, I would suggest you research the cases involving Eddie O’Brien here in Massachusetts, who at age 15 stabbed his neighbor’s mother to death — by stabbing her 90 times. Or John Odgren, a special needs student who stabbed 15-year-old James F. Alenson to death in a bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in January 2007. These juveniles were convicted of committing horrific, unspeakably violent murders. They and more than 60 other juveniles like them will now be eligible for parole one day, after serving just 15 years of their sentence, and potentially released back on to the streets. That means Edward O’Brien could be back on the streets before his 30th birthday. Roughly the same for John Odgren.

Do you feel that because convicted murderers like these were perhaps two or three birthdays away from the age of 18 when they were sentenced, they should be given this potential “out,” – one that a similar murder convict one year older would not receive? And would you feel safe if one of them was walking behind you on a street, having been paroled from prison?

As a Massachusetts juvenile crimes defense attorney, I fight hard for my clients, tooth and nail. But in select cases of a horrific nature, at some point, justice needs to be served. And I became a lawyer to produce justice. Not sing a party line. I say this with full respect for my brother and sister criminal defense attorneys who may not agree with me.