More than 60 people are currently serving sentences of life without parole in Massachusetts prisons for murders they committed when they were teenagers, cases that are likely to get new scrutiny by defense lawyers in the wake of a US Supreme Court ruling today.
In the 5-4 decision, the nation’s highest court said that such sentences violated the US Constitution.
“We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.
The Massachusetts Department of Corrections said today that 61 prisoners were serving the state’s toughest sentence for murders committed before they came of age.
The cases, some of them notorious crimes that made headlines and others less well-known, stretch back years — and up to the past few days.
The attorney for Joshua Fernandes, who was sentenced Friday in Suffolk Superior Court, said this morning that the Supreme Court ruling may lead to a new trial for her client or a new sentence that could result in Fernandes being freed after spending 15 years behind bars.
“We challenged the same statute’’ during the trial of Fernandes, who was 16 years old on May 29, 2010, the date of the killing of Nicholas Fomby-Davis, Rosemary Scapicchio said.
She said she tried to introduce evidence about “adolescent brain development and how it differs from an adult’’ but was denied by the trial judge.
Scapicchio said she will be back in Suffolk Superior Court as soon as she reviews the complex high court ruling and decides on the best tactic to employ on Fernandes’s behalf.
Scapicchio said she believes the ruling will influence the cases of any person who was under the age of 18 at the time of the killing that led to their being convicted of first-degree murder, no matter how many years ago the murder took place.
“The nation’s highest court has now decided that the Eighth Amendment trumps any state law imposing such a sentence,’’ she said. “Massachusetts imposes such a sentence.’’
A 1996 law aimed at cracking down on juvenile “super predators” required them to be tried in adult court. But there was a different legal procedure prior to 1996 that also allowed prosecutors to seek to try juveniles as adults.
Edward S. O’Brien, a Somerville resident who was 15 when he murdered his neighbor Janet Downing in 1995, stabbing her dozens of times, was sentenced to life in prison without parole under the previous legal regime. But the sensational and horrifying details of his case lent impetus to the passage of the 1996 law.
O’Brien’s father, Edward P. O’Brien, said today that lawyers for his son are reviewing today’s ruling, but they have instructed him not to comment on the strategy they will follow in future court filings.
“We are just trying to absorb it,’’ the elder O’Brien said of today’s ruling. “We’ll see what happens.’’John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com.