Massachusetts High Court Strikes Down Mandatory Sentence of Life Without Parole For Juveniles

December 30, 2013
By Parker Scheer LLP on December 30, 2013 10:00 AM |

Until last week, Massachusetts' statute imposing a mandatory sentence of life without parole for those convicted of first degree murder applied equally to adults and juveniles who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. However, interpreting a 2012 decision from the United States Supreme Court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ("SJC") has held that denying such juveniles the opportunity to be considered for parole is unconstitutional under both the federal Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

In 1981, Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 years old at the time, stabbed a man nine times, killing him. Diatchenko was convicted of first degree murder and was sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The sentence ensured that Diatchenko would die in prison.

In 2012, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment prohibited the mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole for individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time they committed murder. The SJC interpreted the Supreme Court's decision to apply retroactively to those individuals who had received such a sentence prior to the Supreme Court's decision, and held that, because Diantchenko was only 17 years old at the time of his crime, the portion of his sentence that denied him the possibility of parole could not stand. Having served approximately thirty-one years in prison pursuant to the sentence, the SJC ruled that Diantchenko is immediately eligible to be considered for parole.

The SJC's decision recognized the "unique characteristics of juvenile offenders," as supported by scientific and social data. The SJC stated, "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 reasonably ascertain, with any reasonably degree of certainty, whether imposition of this most severe punishment is warranted."

According to the SJC, a juvenile's diminished culpability and greater prospect for reform makes him less deserving of a severe punishment like life without parole, regardless of the atrocity of the crime committed. For these same reasons, the SJC also found that discretionary sentences of life without parole - in addition to mandatory such sentences - were unconstitutional when applied to juveniles.

According to the Boston Globe, the SJC's decision will affect 63 Massachusetts inmates who were sentenced as juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. Although the SJC's decision does not affect the then-juveniles' life sentences, it does provide them the opportunity to, at the appropriate time, show sufficient rehabilitative progress to earn them release from prison on parole before their lives have completely passed them by.

If you or a loved one received a mandatory sentence to prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as a juvenile, contact Massachusetts criminal defense attorneys Francis T. O'Brien, Jr. and Vincent A. Tofani to discuss your rights and options.