The Supreme Judicial Court today ruled a man convicted of a 1981 murder in Kenmore Square can apply for parole because he was only 17 at the time he became a killer, because his automatic sentence of life without parole violates both the federal and state prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment, at least as far as adolescents are concerned.
The US Supreme Court ruled last year that juvenile murderers could not be automatically sentenced to life without parole but that a judge could use his discretion to impose such a sentence after a hearing.
In its ruling today, however, the state's highest court ruled that, in Massachusetts, even that goes too far, because adolescents are fundamentally different from adults and that because they are far more amenable to rehabilitation than adults, permanent life behind bars is cruel and unusual and akin to the death penalty, which is unconstitutional in Massachusetts.
The ruling not only affects the sentence of Gregory Diatchenko, who plunged a knife into Thomas Wharf nine times in a car in Kenmore Square 32 years ago, but could affect the sentencing of Nyasani Watt, recently convicted of murdering a teen as part of a gang feud - ten days before Watt turned 18. His fellow gang member, already 18 at the time of the murder, has already gotten a manadatory sentence of life without parole.
In its ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court cited scientific evidence in ordering Diatchenko free - and reversing an earlier ruling in which it said he should stay behind bars until dead:
Given current scientific research on adolescent brain development, and the myriad significant ways that this development impacts a juvenile's personality and behavior, a conclusive showing of traits such as an "irretrievably depraved character," ... can never be made, with integrity, by the Commonwealth at an individualized hearing to determine whether a sentence of life without parole should be imposed on a juvenile homicide offender. ... Simply put, because the brain of a juvenile is not fully developed, either structurally or functionally, by the age of eighteen, a judge cannot find with confidence that a particular offender, at that point in time, is irretrievably depraved. ... Therefore, it follows that the judge cannot ascertain, with any reasonable degree of certainty, whether imposition of this most severe punishment is warranted. As the Supreme Court recognized in Miller, "children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing," irrespective of the specific crimes that they have committed. ... They have "diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, ... [and, as such,] 'they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.' " ... When considered in the context of the offender's age and the wholesale forfeiture of all liberties, the imposition of a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender is strikingly similar, in many respects, to the death penalty, which this court has determined is unconstitutional under art. 26. See District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist. v. Watson, 381 Mass. at 661- 662.
The penological justifications for imposing life in prison without the possibility of parole--incapacitation, retribution, and deterrence--reflect the ideas that certain offenders should be imprisoned permanently because they have committed the most serious crimes, and they pose an ongoing and lasting danger to society. ... However, the distinctive attributes of juvenile offenders render such justifications suspect.... More importantly, they cannot override the fundamental imperative of art. 26 that criminal punishment be proportionate to the offender and the offense. With current scientific evidence in mind, we conclude that the discretionary imposition of a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole on juveniles who are under the age of eighteen when they commit murder in the first degree violates the prohibition against "cruel or unusual punishment[ ]" in art. 26. The unconstitutionality of this punishment arises not from the imposition of a sentence of life in prison, but from the absolute denial of any possibility of parole. Given the unique characteristics of juvenile offenders, they should be afforded, in appropriate circumstances, the opportunity to be considered for parole suitability.