The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down a judge’s power to choose to give a life sentence without parole to juveniles.
The unanimous ruling by the state’s highest court came after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down mandatory life sentences for minors. The state’s top court went further in its Tuesday ruling, saying that even discretionary sentences should be banned.
“Given the unique characteristics of juvenile offenders, they should be afforded, in appropriate circumstances, the opportunity to be considered for parole suitability,” the court wrote in its decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court limited the use of life in prison for murderers under age 18, deciding that that judges must consider the defendants’ youth and the nature of the crime before putting them behind bars with no hope for parole. In a 5-4 decision, the high court struck down as cruel and unusual punishment the laws in about 28 states that mandated a life term for murderers, including those under age 18.
In the state ruling, the court used elements of the same argument about proportionality of the punishment to the crime and noted the special conditions for juveniles who are still developing.
“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,” the court wrote.
The ruling came in the case of Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 in 1981 when he murdered a man in a car in Kenmore Square. He has been in prison for more than three decades. The court ruled that he was eligible to be considered for parole immediately.
Officials have said 61 other inmates in Massachusetts are in the same position as Diatchenko.