Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Ruling Will Allow Some Juvenile Murderers to be Resentenced

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that a double murderer who was a juvenile at the time of his crimes has the right to be resentenced in light of new cases prohibiting a mandatory life without parole sentence for juvenile killers.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Costa.

The defendant, then 16 years old, participated in a shooting in Boston in 1986 that left two people dead.  He was charged along with two adult codefendants.  He and one of his codefendants were convicted of double murder.  At the time, the judge was obligated to sentence the defendant to a mandatory sentence of life without parole for each murder.  The judge had the opportunity to order the two life sentences to be served concurrently (at the same time) or consecutively (one after the other).  At the time, a consecutive sentence was the functional equivalent of a concurrent sentence, because the defendant would never be eligible for parole.

The law regarding sentences for juvenile murderers changed significantly in 2012, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution (which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments).  The following year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights prohibits even the discretionary imposition of life without parole for juveniles.  As a result, juvenile murderers in Massachusetts at that time were entitled to apply for parole after serving 15 years of their sentences.

In this case, the sentencing judge’s decision to impose consecutive life sentences turned out to have a dramatic impact on the defendant’s possible parole date.  If the sentences had been imposed concurrently, he would be eligible for parole after 15 years.  However, because the sentences were imposed consecutively, he would not become parole eligible until after 30 years (15 years on each case with one sentence coming after the other).

The defendant convinced a superior court judge that he should be awarded a hearing to argue that the two life sentences be ordered served concurrently rather than consecutively.  The Commonwealth appealed and contended that it would be improper for a judge to now reconsider what was a lawful order at the time of sentencing.  The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the defendant that he should receive a new sentencing hearing.  The Court reasoned that when one component of an integrated sentence is illegal (in this case, the sentence of life without parole), the defendant’s sentence is ordinarily vacated in its entirety and the case is remanded to the trial court for resentencing.  Because the trial judge in this case could not have known the effect of consecutive sentences at the time, it is appropriate now for a judge to reconsider the appropriate punishment.

The Massachusetts Legislature has since enacted a new statute that lays out the minimum amount of time juvenile murderers must serve before becoming eligible for parole.  The new law says that based on the facts of the case, a first-degree murderer who is a juvenile must wait between 20 and 30 years before seeing the parole board.