Massachusetts Stands Out When Sentencing Teen Killers

There has been recent debate, as well as published articles and opinions, about Massachusetts being among the harshest states in America in terms of dealing with teens found guilty of murder. This has prompted proposed legislation in the Massachusetts State Senate which would permit juveniles convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced to life be eligible for parole after 15 years—in other words, to face the same sentences we currently impose on any adult convicted of 2nd degree murder.

As a criminal defense attorney who defends murder cases not just locally and regionally, but also nationally (I will be returning to California in ten days for a lengthy preliminary hearing in the Clark Rockefeller homicide trial), I am in favor of this legislation. I understand the reasons behind the changes that resulted in any juvenile age 14 or older being automatically prosecuted in adult court for charges in Massachusetts alleging 1st or 2nd degree murder. I myself was a homicide prosecutor way back when, and I too was frustrated by the previous antiquated and cumbersome “Transfer” process in the Commonwealth that left the ultimate decision over both jurisdiction and sentence up to the juvenile court.

As a prosecutor back then, I suppose I was also concerned about, and attuned to, the concept of the Teen "Super Predator." But I also knew back then about political expediency and Grand-Standing, and I know now that we continue to voice our concerns and "solve" our problems by resorting to extremes. Simply put, there is no rational reason why a 14, 15, or 16 year old convicted of 1st degree murder should not be eligible for parole consideration after 15 yrs.

However, there are both scientific and legal reasons why they should be. On the scientific front, repeated studies have shown that the juvenile brain is nowhere near fully developed enough to make the same degree of risk assessment, moral reasoning, and cause and effect analysis that the adult brain is able to make—and yet, in Massachusetts, the Legislature mandates that juvenile murderers be treated as though the scientific and medical evidence does not matter.

From a legal standpoint, the Supreme Court of the United States has said as much when it comes to the issue of sentencing. In Gall v. United States, Justice Stevens made clear that age is a mitigating factor that should be considered when imposing sentence when he said, "Immaturity at the time of the offense conduct is not an inconsequential consideration. Recent studies on the development of the human brain conclude that human brain development may not be complete until the age of twenty-five..." And yet, here in Massachusetts, we ignore this premise and allow no age consideration whatsoever when sentencing individuals nine, ten, and eleven years below this scientific benchmark.

Is this Massachusetts practice unconstitutional? To me, Gall suggests it could be. Is this reasonable? Of course not! Just because a juvenile is eligible for parole after 15 yrs does not mean he will obtain it. Indeed, pre-Cinnelli (a case involving the tragic killing of Woburn Police Officer Jack McGuire by a paroled murderer) parole was not being granted for those convicted of 2nd degree murder until they served about 23-25 years of their sentence.

Changing the statute would be easy, as the only change required is simply adjusting the language of MGL Ch. 119, s. 72B to say that "if a person is found guilty of first and second degree murder on or after his fourteenth birthday and before his seventeenth birthday, the Superior Court shall commit the person to such punishment as provided by law for second degree murder." Problem solved. The injustice(s) will be addressed with very little changed. And change usually does come during an election year. Since we’re in one now, let’s see if anyone has the courage to bring common-sense and fairness back to the forefront when considering sentences for younger teens convicted of murder. I’ll be waiting.

If you have been accused of a crime and you need a lawyer to represent you please contact Brad Bailey at 781-589-2828