Mass. Watches Closely As High Court Reviews Juvenile Sentencing

BOSTON — Many in Massachusetts are closely monitoring Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court review of life prison sentences for juveniles. Members of the state’s judicial and academic communities have weighed in, and parents of both offenders and victims are also watching.

Among those who are hopeful about Tuesday’s court hearing is Paul Odgren. His son, John, killed a classmate in a Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School bathroom in 2007. Two years ago John was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“There aren’t any magic words for a case like my son’s, or other kids’,” Paul Odgren said. “Until you’re dragged into a situation like this, I don’t think you could possibly understand the implications of taking a young person, and saying to them, ‘That’s it. Forever.’ ”

John Odgren enters the courtroom during his murder trial at Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn on April 28, 2010. (AP/Pool)

John Odgren enters the courtroom during his murder trial at Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn on April 28, 2010. (AP)

Paul and his wife, Dot Odgren, visit John three times a week at Bridgewater State Hospital. That’s where John is being held because of mental health issues. Dot Odgren says they try not to talk about the fact that the now-21-year-old will probably be incarcerated for the rest of his life.

“It’s up and down. It’s hard,” Dot Odgren said. “He knows he’s there and there’s no chance of ever leaving.”

John Odgren is among the 59 Massachusetts inmates charged with homicide before age 18 and now serving a life sentence with no parole possible. Odgren was 16 when he fatally stabbed 15-year-old James Alenson.

The Alenson family is not commenting. Some family members of juvenile offender victims, though, say that these offenders should never be released.

“If you’re a juvenile and you commit a crime, you should be responsible to do the time that comes with it,” said Olivia Singletary, whose 19-year-old son, Perry Hughes, was shot by a 16-year-old in Brookline in 2002. Singletary asks: why shouldn’t the offender’s loss be comparable to hers, and her memories of the past decade, especially on certain days?

“The date of his birthday always comes up, and the day he died,” she said. “When these dates come up I get feelings of depression. I’ve been under depression and mourning ever since.”

The Issue Of Sentencing Juveniles

Balancing the rights of young victims and offenders is not new; what’s new is that the high court has taken steps to reduce juvenile sentences.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the death penalty for those under 18. In 2010, the high court found it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses. On Tuesday the justices hear arguments in cases involving 13- and 14-year-olds’ murder convictions and whether their life without parole sentences are constitutional.

“I basically think it’s just wrong,” said Gail Garinger, one of six Massachusetts judges who signed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court Tuesday. Garinger is now Massachusetts’ child advocate, appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick. The judges argue that what we now know about children’s development should change the thinking about sentencing young offenders and allow them an opportunity to be evaluated for parole.

“We’re dealing with children who really are biologically different than adults,” Garinger said. “They’re still in formation. They’re less culpable for their actions. To make a determination at the time of sentencing that a child must be confined for life with no hope for reform or release is just wrong.”

In Massachusetts, state law changed in 1996 to require that juveniles charged with murder — between 14 and 17 years old — have their cases automatically sent to adult court, rather than juvenile court. The change was in response to the gruesome murder involving 15-year-old Eddie O’Brien, of Somerville, who fatally stabbed his friend’s mother.

Retired Juvenile Court Chief Justice Martha Grace was on the bench then, and she also signed the Supreme Court brief, saying retribution for victims does not mean justice.

“I don’t think there’s any good argument for the victims who’ve lost somebody,” Grace said, “whether it’s life in jail or the death penalty. Maybe if you’ve lost someone and a juvenile spends life in jail, 23 hours in lockdown, and then goes crazy and dies, maybe that’s some comfort for the victim, I don’t know.”

The National District Attorneys Association supports life without parole sentences for juveniles charged with murder and says the high court should keep them in place to protect public safety.

Middlesex County District Attorney Gerry Leone issued a statement Monday saying that the Legislature has dealt with this issue and the intent remains clear: those who take the life of another with atrocity are dangerous. Leone said the justice system has checks in place to ensure that a murder charge against a juvenile is used wisely.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer.

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  • Joealbiani

    The idea that there is no possibility for change is not realistic. I shudder at some if the things I did, almost did or didn’t do that I should have when I was a teen. The family of the first victim is understandably personally involved and their pain is horrible. The killer’s family are no less victims and their pain is horrible as well. The purpose prison is to remove dangerous people and punish them for their crimes. The idea of rehabilitation is not so dominant in our prison system but should be. That is the part that affects all of us. I am too familiar with people making major changes in their life to say never to a teen.

    • Rerum

      I don’t shudder at the things I did in my youth because murder is not something I could even consider, then or now. If you could, you are in need of serious mental health work. Yes, the killer’s family feel pain, but for you to want us to belive them as vicitms show that you would allow killers to roam free among us.

      • Wordlass

        As though Joealbiani is saying he “considered murder.” What he said is that he is clearly not the same person now that he was as a teenager. He grew. He changed. He matured. And perhaps he learned that people who make outrageous statements to support their opinions do so because they aren’t able to make rational and meaningful points. (“Nyah, nyah and so are you” is the refuge of the inarticulate and the dull-witted. And of those who have probably not matured much since teenage years, Rerum.)

        Some of these juveniles (I would venture to say most) are mentally ill. Treat them. Rehabilitate them. But to out of hand discard them? People aren’t sent to prison as vengeance. They are incarcerated to protect the public and for rehabilitation. If they are no longer a threat, release should be considered.

  • Anonymous

    This Animal should be in jail not a mental hospt.The kid he killed can never come back, the family will never see him or her grow,get married or anything they should be asble to see.We have let murders out before and they have killed again.Its Liberals like joealbini who would have this murdering scum back on the streets,Im  guessing this guy is in the business of fixing these troubleing murdering punks.Well  joealbiani  your wrong some things cant be fixed,maybe it would take some one close to you getting killed to open your eyes.

  • gardenia

    Revenge is sweet.  Hang/electrocute this vile “kid”.  Or maybe solitary confinement for life in jail.  If he is judged to be insane then give him a padded cell for life.  NO PAROLE EVER.

  • Anonymous

    Why should this even be up for debate? A murderer is a murderer no matter what age, so a young murderer gets preferential treatment? Yes let them out until they reach the age 18 then kill another person, then we can put them away for life, is that it?

  • ThatGirlYouTorturedinSchool

    How about we put you in the shoes of a child that has been tortured their entire school life. That child that multiple kids gang up on to make fun of. Lets look at her life…
    Remember that little girl who had her pants pulled down on the bus when she was in kindergarden and everyone thought it was so funny. Then every day people would call her names all through elementary school until she went home crying and the only way the bus driver could protect her from the others was to sit her in the front seat. Then in junior high the insults continued only this time occasionally someone would pretend to be a friend only to make fun of her. The girl who some nasty boys drew pictures of with blood dripping from between her legs because she had to borrow some pads from a girl during a school trip when she got her period unexpectedly. The girl who walked out of a class because the teasing was so horrible and the teacher couldn’t make them stop and she didn’t get in trouble because the teacher didn’t blame her. The girl who was in the principal’s office every day begging and pleading with them to make it stop, yet they wouldn’t. She got gum spit in her hair, her books, and glasses stolen and many other terrible things done without anyone being punished yet if she retaliated she would get detention. Then in high school she went to a new school, out of the area, where the teasing was less but it was still there occasionally but the damage was already done. She was an outcast but was able to manage to make some friends. The school was small and the staff kind. They did not allow such torture in their school. That girl still fell into depression and tried to kill herself and was hospitalized. She got help and recovered but never managed to graduate though she tried, the stress from all that happened was too much and she got her GED a few years after she should have graduated. Now 10yrs later she is an adult and is still socially isolated and still recovering from the lifetime of abuse YOU put her through and I bet you don’t even remember all those horrible things you did to her after all these years, you might not even remember her. She sure does… I was that little girl.

    and people wonder what brings teenagers to commit such horrible acts. Some are driven to it. Why should they rot in prison their whole lives?

    • WTF?

      You have a point – except that there is no evidence that Odgren was bullied, harassed, or abused by other kids at LS. You can be sure if he had been his shyster lawyer would have beat that drum long and loud.

  • Ex-Con

    the victim was the lucky one. i’d rather die violently than spend the rest of my life in a place worse than hell aka prison

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