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Split court rules some life-without-parole sentences in Massachusetts are unconstitutional



Colin A. Young

BOSTON, MA – Sentencing 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to serve a life term without the possibility of parole violates the prohibition against cruel or unusual punishment and is unconstitutional, the Supreme Judicial Court held Thursday in a 4-3 ruling that overrules the state Legislature.

Massachusetts is one of 10 states that require sentences of life without parole for people ages 18 through 20 who are convicted of murder in the first degree. The SJC previously, in its 2013 decision in the case of Gregory Diatchenko, determined that life sentences without parole were unconstitutional for juveniles and that all inmates sentenced that way for crimes committed under the age of 18 should be granted a chance at parole.

In the case of Sheldon Mattis, who was sentenced to life without parole for a 2011 murder that happened when he was 18, the SJC considered updated research on the brains of emerging adults — defined specifically as 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds — and the way people in that age group are treated in other parts of state law to decide whether the legislatively-mandated sentences should be allowed.

The court determined that “the brains of emerging adults are not fully developed and are more similar to those of juveniles than older adults, and that our contemporary standards of decency in the Commonwealth and elsewhere disfavor imposing the Commonwealth’s harshest sentence on this cohort,” Chief Justice Kimberly Budd wrote.

Budd wrote the majority opinion, Justice Scott Kafker wrote his own concurring opinion, and Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt wrote a concurring opinion that Justice Frank Gaziano joined. Justices David Lowy, Elspeth Cypher and Serge Georges dissented, with Lowy and Cypher each writing an opinion.

“The power to ‘define a crime and ordain its punishment’ is an exclusively legislative function, and ‘in judging legislative determinations of crimes and punishments, we exercise our powers of review with great caution,'” Lowy wrote, citing relevant case law. “For the crime of murder in the first degree, the Legislature has deemed the mandatory imposition of life without the possibility of parole to be the appropriate punishment for adults eighteen and older convicted of this offense. While we have an obligation to intervene when the Legislature acts unconstitutionally, unless the punishment the Legislature imposes is ‘so disproportionate’ that it ‘shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity’ … we must exercise restraint and uphold it.”

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. MortisMaximus

    January 16, 2024 at 7:46 pm

    Let the murderers and rapists run free. Someone will be called to account when these criminal Vermin reoffend.

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