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Governor Deval Patrick proposes changes to sentencing laws for young killers

Murder suspect Edward O'Brien, 15, right, of Somerville, Mass., confers with an unidentified defense attorney during a hearing at Somerville District Court Tuesday, Jan. 16, 1996. O'Brien is charged in connection with the 1995 stabbing death of his 42-year-old neighbor Janet Downing. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Eddie O’Brien, who was 15 at the time, spoke with a defense attorney during a 1996 hearing. He was convicted of killing his friend’s mother. Massachusetts’ law was passed soon after. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)Credit: AP

Governor Deval Patrick plans on Monday to propose broad legislation that would sharply reduce the number of teenagers sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder convictions, his aides said.

The changes would allow some of these offenders to get parole hearings as soon as15 years after their incarceration, and even sooner in some cases in which, for example, the offender did not pull the trigger or otherwise kill the victim. Parole boards would still have discretion to keep them behind bars for life.

The administration proposal would require that first- and second-degree murder cases for teenagers aged 14 to 17 be tried in juvenile court instead of adult court, as is currently required. It would also broaden the jurisdiction of juvenile court judges over other offenses, changing the definition of a juvenile from 16 and under to 17 and under.

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Juvenile judges would still have the discretion to sentence young offenders to life without parole for first-degree murder, but only after written findings that specific criteria —related to the defendant’s intellectual development and capacity for rehabilitation and risk to the public — have been met.

Patrick’s proposals, which come in response to a US Supreme Court ruling in June that said states could no longer automatically detain all teen murderers for life without parole, will serve as a key stake in the ground on Beacon Hill this year in a fierce debate over juvenile justice.

Lawmakers have offered several alternative proposals, including at least one that would keep teen murderers behind bars for a minimum of 35 years.

Many defense attorneys and others who advocate on behalf of young offenders have pushed for quicker parole eligibility, citing a growing body of evidence that teenagers lack the brain development to fully comprehend their crimes, and that they are better candidates for rehabilitation than older offenders.

“Governor Patrick has proposed this legislation to create a fairer justice system for our youth and for our Commonwealth,” said Gail Garinger, the state’s official child advocate who advises Patrick, in a statement released by the administration. “It is wrong to give up on any young person without considering the circumstances of his crime, his life experiences, and without asking whether he is capable of being rehabilitated before we sentence him to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

But many prosecutors and victims’ groups worry that if sentences become too lenient, they will not reflect the gravity of the crimes.

Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone said in a statement that, in the absence of life without parole, “those who kill with deliberate premeditation or extreme atrocity and cruelty” should serve at least 35 years before they are eligible for release.

“For a 15-year-old killer, parole eligibility at age 50 limits the risk of recidivating and still provides a life expectancy of 20 years, where the victim has none,” he said.

Current Massachusetts law was passed in 1996, soon after 15-year-old Eddie O’Brien was convicted of killing his friend’s mother, slashing her nearly 100 times in her Somerville home.

The law requires life without parole for all offenders convicted of first-degree murder, aged 14 and older. But last year’s Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama, deemed automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles, imposed in 29 states, unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

Other states affected by the ruling have so far proposed a range of laws, but only a few have enacted them, according to Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center, a Pennsylvania-based advocacy group. Pennsylvania law provides minimums of 25 and 35 years to life for first-degree murder, depending on whether the defendant is older or younger than 15. California allows for parole after 15 years in some cases, but requires at least 25 years served before most offenders are eligible, she said in an e-mail.

Massachusetts Department of Correction statistics show that 62 offenders are currently serving life sentences for murders they committed between the ages of 15 and 17. Nearly two dozen of those incarcerated as youths are now in their 40s. State courts have yet to rule on whether or how the Supreme Court ruling affects those prisoners, as well as more than a dozen other defendants who have been charged or convicted since the high court ruled. The Miller ruling did not specify what states should do with inmates previously sentenced.

Patrick’s legislation does not address how those cases would be resolved. But his aides say they believe those defendants will eventually win the right to new sentencing hearings in the courts.

“We think this legislation provides clear parameters when those offenders are resentenced,” said Kate Cook, Patrick’s chief legal counsel.

Before meting out a sentence of life without parole to those under 18 years old, judges, under Patrick’s legislation, would be required to consider 11 factors, including the defendant’s age, maturity, mental capacity, and upbringing, as well as the impact on the victims. Without those findings, a judge would be required to sentence the juvenile to a life sentence, with parole eligibility between 15 and 25 years in most cases. In some cases, where a defendant is convicted of first-degree murder but did not directly kill someone, he or she may be eligible for parole after 10 years.

Garinger told the Globe in November that she would not support a bill that required youths sentenced to life in prison to serve more than 15 years without the opportunity for parole and that she supported banning life without parole for all juveniles. But Saturday, she released a statement through Patrick’s staff praising the proposed legislation.

“While the governor’s bill does not entirely preclude these sentences, it requires that an appropriately heavy burden be met before a judge could impose such a sentence,” she said. “Many of my other recommendations are included in the governor’s proposal. If enacted, the governor’s proposal would be a significant step forward.”

Joshua Dohan, director of the state public defender’s Youth Advocacy Division, also expressed disappointment that Patrick’s option would allow judges to sentence youths to life without parole.

“We’re the only modern country that does that to children,” Dohan said. “At least it does give the court a better range of discretion.”

For the same reason, the proposal could please some victims’ advocates.

“Most of us, I can tell you, believe that a life without parole sentence should be an option, and it should be rare,” said Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, head of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, an Illinois-based group, whose pregnant sister and brother-in-law were killed by a teenager.

Leone, the Middlesex district attorney, opposes several aspects of Patrick’s bill, which may loom as a major factor in the Legislature.

Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who expects to be a co-chairman of the Legislature’s judiciary committee this year, said lawmakers will wait to hear testimony from prosecutors, victims, and advocates before making up their minds, though he agrees something has to be done in light of the Miller decision.

Representative Christopher M. Markey, a Dartmouth Democrat who served as a prosecutor for 12 years, said he supports parole eligibility at 25 or 30 years.

“To me, a 12-person jury deliberately decided that the defendant committed a premeditated murder,” he said. “Having it as a simple 15-year parole eligibility is not enough. You’re 31 years old when you potentially get out.”

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