SALEM, Mass. — Prosecutors in Essex County, north of Boston, are 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 with the murder of teacher Colleen Ritzer, 24, in a case that made national headlines in October.
Chism is accused of attacking and robbing Ritzer in a second-floor bathroom at Danvers High on the afternoon of Oct. 22, then wheeling her in a recycling bin to a wooded area nearby, where he raped her and left her partly naked under a pile of leaves and debris, according to court papers. Police found a note next to her body that read, "I hate you all."
Chism pleaded not guilty earlier this month and is awaiting trial.
The court’s ruling last week 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 though he and other prosecutors agree that teen brains are different from those of adults, that distinction 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.