Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Announces New Rules for Juvenile Murderers

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today set in place a new set of rules that govern the resources available to incarcerated juvenile murderers who are now seeking to be released on parole.  The name of the case is Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District.

This is the most recent case dealing with the appropriate penalty for juveniles who are convicted of murder.  In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile murderers violated the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution (which bars cruel and unusual punishments).  The following year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court went one step further and concluded that any life sentence without the possibility of parole for juveniles (whether mandatory or discretionary) was unlawful.  The Supreme Judicial Court said a juvenile murderer must be given a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate that he has matured and rehabilitated in order to argue for his release.  In response to the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law allowing for a three-tiered system of parole for juvenile murderers, allowing them to apply for parole after serving between 20 and 30 years of their sentence (depending on the theory of murder under which they were convicted).

Writing for the five-member majority in this case, Justice Margot Botsford ruled that in applying for parole, juvenile murderers are entitled to: the assistance of court-appointed counsel; funds to hire a psychologist or other expert witness; and review of the parole board’s denial of parole by a superior court judge.

In the recent cases dealing with the appropriate punishment for juvenile murderers, courts have recognized that juveniles must be treated differently than adult defendants because their brains have not fully developed.  Therefore, juveniles have  a more limited ability to control their impulses and make reasoned decisions.  As a result, the punishments given to adults (which is life in prison without parole for adult murder defendants) are not appropriate for juveniles.  The Supreme Judicial Court said that presentations to the parole board in juvenile murder cases will often involve complex questions of law and fact, and deal with sophisticated expert testimony.  The Court said that an unrepresented, indigent juvenile murderer will probably not have the skills and resources to gather the necessary psychological evidence and present it effectively to the parole board.  Therefore, in order for a juvenile murderer to have a “meaningful” opportunity to apply for parole, he is entitled to have a court-appointed attorney represent him and he is entitled to public funds to hire mental health professionals to offer testimony that will assist his petition.

Justices Robert Cordy and Francis Spina dissented.  They argued that the additional safeguards imposed by the majority in this case are not necessary to afford a meaningful parole hearing to a juvenile murderer.

The trend in criminal law has been to consider very carefully the punishments imposed on juvenile offenders who commit horrific crimes.  This new decision is consistent with that trend.  It will be interesting to see, after some time has passed, how many juvenile murderers are released by the parole board.