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Hearing Could Clarify Ruling On Juvenile Murder Sentences

BOSTON — A judge is reviewing questions about the way courts in Massachusetts sentence juveniles convicted of murder. The hearing marks the first formal court proceedings to review the issue since a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said it’s unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Friday’s hearing involves now-18-year-old Ben Peirce, of Newton. He is the only juvenile among three people charged in the 2010 shooting death of Adam Coveney, 29, of Waltham.

Peirce’s attorney, John Salsberg, has asked the judge to clarify what sentence Peirce faces if convicted.

Massachusetts law requires that life without parole is the mandatory sentence for anyone convicted of first-degree murder, but Salsberg says the law is in question after the high court’s ruling.

“This is a really important step in applying the Supreme Court’s decision to Massachusetts,” said Josh Dohan, the director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. “The Supreme Court was quite clear that the state cannot impose life without the possibility of parole on a juvenile as a mandatory sentence. What they didn’t say, however, was what you can do.”

Salsberg says until there is a clarification between state law and the Supreme Court ruling, he cannot effectively advise his client. But the state disagrees (PDF). It says defense attorneys are never certain of possible sentences. Additionally, it says the ruling still allows juveniles to be sent to prison for life — it’s just that those sentences can no longer be automatic.

Naoka Carey, with the group Citizens for Juvenile Justice, says eventually the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will have to get involved.

“At some point the SJC needs to address these issues and it’s possible this is the case where they address the issues and they say, ‘This is what the Supreme Court decision means for young people in Massachusetts’,” Carey said.

Judge Kathe Tuttman is expected to decide Friday whether to refer the matter to the SJC or set a trial date.

There are now 61 juveniles in Massachusetts serving life-without-parole prison sentences.

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