60 Mass. Juvenile Offenders Could Be Up For Parole After Court Ruling

Download Audio

A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court Monday could force reviews of the sentences given to dozens of teenagers in Massachusetts.

The high court limited the use of life sentences for teenage killers, saying automatic life-without-parole sentences for anyone found guilty of committing a murder before the age of 18 is cruel and unusual punishment.

Attorneys are already reviewing the ruling to see if it might pertain to any of the more than 60 Massachusetts inmates who were automatically sentenced to life without parole for offenses committed before they were 18.

Attorney Ingrid Martin's client, Joseph Donovan, was sent to prison for his involvement in a murder when he was 17 years old.

"We'll counsel as a team," she said. "But certainly this ruling by the Supreme Court leads you to believe that Joseph Donovan is serving an unconstitutional sentence and a judge needs to take another look at this."

Ruling Gives Hope To Inmates

During an interview at MCI-Shirley this year, Donovan said he was hopeful that the high court might open the door so he could someday be considered for parole.

"The hardest thing about being here, hands down, is the pain I've caused my family," Donovan said. "They have to come here and be subjected to this. It's like a slow death. Sorta like the death penalty, only it's by increments."

Another high-profile case involves John Odgren. He was the teen who fatally stabbed a classmate he didn't know in a restroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in 2007.

"There aren't any magic words for a case like my son's, or other kids," said Paul Odgren, John's father. "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.'"

'Worst Of The Worst'

Massachusetts prosecutors say judges already use their discretion in cases involving juveniles — and mandatory life sentences are used only in extreme cases.

"In Suffolk County and across the commonwealth, prosecutors seek this punishment for the worst of the worst," said Suffolk County District Attorney spokesman Jake Wark. "That's what we see here. It's a small number of juveniles who are the worst of the worst."

In Massachusetts, state law changed in 1996, automatically sending juveniles charged with murder to adult court, where a conviction carries the mandatory adult sentence. The law change came amid a string of high-profile murders involving teens — perhaps most notably Eddie O'Brien. He was convicted of brutally murdering his friend's mother.

Thomas Reilly, who was Middlesex County district attorney then, says because O'Brien stabbed someone 97 times, he should never be let out. Reilly called the Supreme Court ruling discouraging. Some juvenile justice advocates are disappointed, too.

"I recognize we have a long way to go in terms of how we deal with young people in our justice system," Reilly said.

Prison Changes Young People

Dwayne Betts spent more than eight years in prison for a crime he committed at 16. He is now a Soros Justice fellow at Harvard University. He says the experience of prison on a young person can make it less likely that they'll ever be paroled.

"More importantly, what happens to young people when in prison and the degree to which what happens to them and changes them and keeps them from ever being able to be the kind of individuals that parole boards are looking for," Betts said.

While parole board and courtroom appeals are likely, it's also expected that Massachusetts and the 28 other states that mandate juvenile life-without-parole sentences will now have to review their state laws as well.

This program aired on June 26, 2012.

Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



More from WBUR

Listen Live