Inmates serving life sentences for murders committed when they were juveniles are constitutionally entitled to lawyers and expert witnesses at their parole hearings, the state's highest court ruled Monday.
The 5-2 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court builds on a December 2013 ruling that found mandatory life sentences for juveniles without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional. That ruling followed a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down such mandatory life sentencing laws, and opened the door for dozens of people in Massachusetts convicted of first-degree murder to seek parole after at least 15 years behind bars.
The SJC's latest ruling would require the state to pay for a lawyer and any expert witnesses at state parole board hearings if the inmate seeking parole was unable to afford private counsel.
Writing for the majority, Margo Botsford said the protections were necessary to assure that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder were provided a "meaningful opportunity" to argue for parole in accordance with the 2013 ruling.
The decision on whether to grant parole would still lie with the board. However, the court also ruled Monday that a decision by the board not to grant parole could be appealed to a Superior Court judge. The judge could not order that parole be granted, but could find the board did not use proper discretion and order a new hearing.
Nothing in the ruling was "intended to suggest that any other class of offenders is also entitled to these protections in connection with the parole hearing process," the justices made clear in their ruling.
In a dissenting opinion, Justices Francis Spina and Robert Cordy argued that the court was overstepping its bounds by essentially making the parole process — which is a function of the executive branch of government — part of the judicial sentencing process.
"The Legislature never intended such a relationship between sentence and parole," Spina wrote.
The decision came in a case brought by Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 when he fatally stabbed a man in Kenmore Square in 1981, and Jeffrey Roberio, who was convicted of killing an elderly Middleboro man when he was also 17.
Diatechenko, who also brought the case that led to the 2013 SJC decision, has already been granted parole but has not yet been released from prison. Roberio has not yet had a parole hearing, the court said.
Then-Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law last year that would make juveniles convicted of first-degree murder eligible for parole after serving 20 to 30 years of a life sentence. The law was not retroactive.