Victims' families were incensed at the state Supreme Judicial Court's ruling last month to strike down mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Now, lawmakers equally upset at the ruling have filed a bill to push back on that decision.
The high court's ruling was retroactive, and it affects a number of cases where convicted murderers, now serving life sentences, were juveniles at the time of the murder. This includes the case of Edward O'Brien, who was 15 when he murdered Janet Downing in Somerville.
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State Sens. Bruce Tarr and Barry Finegold held a press conference Thursday at the State House to publicly speak on a bill they jointly authored that would impose at least a 35-year prison sentence before parole is possible for juvenile killers.
Tarr (R-Gloucester) and Finegold (D-Andover) were joined by a coalition of fellow lawmakers and the family of Beth Brodie, a 16-year-old from Groveland who was murdered in 1992 by Richard Baldwin, then also 16. The two had dated a few times and Baldwin just moved from Groveland to Peabody at the time of the murder.
“The Supreme Court said that it is cruel and unusual punishment that a juvenile would have to spend their life behind bars without parole, but it is also cruel and unusual punishment that after only 15 years and every five years thereafter, a victim’s family would have to relive such a horrible tragedy,” said Finegold Thursday.
“In the wake of court decisions eliminating life without parole for these offenders, we must act now to ensure that those murderers serve the sentences their crimes deserve, and that we protect public safety from their premature release,” said Tarr.
“If we must consider parole in these cases, it must be done with respect to victims and their families and the security of our communities as much as to the rights conferred by the judiciary,” he said.
Brodie's family on Thursday said 15 years isn't a “a reasonable punishment for a killer of any age” and feels like a “slap in the face” to them.
“Preparing for parole hearings forces us to re-live the worst days of our lives. The pure and innocent are paying the price for the evil and twisted. We seek justice, justice for Beth Brodie, justice for all families involved,” they said.
The main feature of the bill is just what Essex County District Attorney Jon Blodgett called for in a letter to lawmakers on Friday, asking them to consider extending minimum prison terms for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder from 15 to 35 years.
Blodgett made the plea on behalf of the Mass. District Attorney's Association. He argued prosecutors already evaluate a defendant’s maturity, along with premeditation and the heinous nature of the crime, among other factors when seeking a murder indictment for a juvenile.
Blodgett said such discretion means only a small fraction of juvenile killers – "the worst of the worst" – are convicted of first-degree murder.
The SJC's ruling was in line with a 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that it is "cruel and unusual punishment" and thereby unconstitutional for states to require all juvenile killers to be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. The SJC referenced research that shows juveniles' brains are still developing.
The difference between the Supreme Court's decision and this one is that under the federal ruling juvenile killers were allowed a hearing to determine if they could be rehabilitated. This decision simply allows convicts of first-degree murder to be eligible for a parole hearing after 15 years, which is the same state standard for second-degree murder.
“While not ideal, 35 years of incarceration would provide victims’ families with some sense of justice and provide a small measure of comfort and security to the community in which the murder occurred,” Blodgett wrote.
The new bill was filed in both legislative bodies on Tuesday and has 22 sponsors so far. More legislators are expected to sign-on to the bill before a Jan. 31 deadline, at which time it will be assigned to committee.
Tarr and Finegold were joined Thursday by co-sponsors Sen. Joan Lovely (D-Salem), Rep. Ted Speliotis (D-Danvers) and Sens. Richard Ross (R-Wrentham), Donald Humason (R-Westfield), James Timilty (D-Walpole), Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge) and Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell).
The new bill is actually very similar to one filed in the House by Rep. John Keenan (D-Salem) last year. Keenan told the Salem News earlier this week he filed the legislation after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, likewise seeking a minimum prison term of 35 years before eligibility for parole.
He said he consulted at the time with former Middlesex DA Gerry Leone.