Juveniles with Life Sentences
In Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012)(Miller), the United States Supreme Court held that the ”imposition of a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole on individuals who were under the age of 18 when they committed the murder is contrary to the prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ in the Eighth Amendment.” Following the Miller decision, a juvenile who had been convicted of first degree murder filed a petition challenging Massachusetts laws that required all individuals convicted of first degree murder to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. On December 24, 2013 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided that case, Commonwealth v. Diatchenko, 466 Mass. 655 (2013), and held that that the statutory provisions mandating life without the possibility of parole are invalid as applied to juveniles who committed murder. The Court also determined that its holding was retroactive for all juveniles currently serving sentences for first degree murder. Finally, the Court decided that Diatchenko (and others similarly situated) must be given a parole hearing.
Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District & others, 466 Mass. 655 (2013)
Supreme Judicial Court, December 24, 2013
In Diatchenko I, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller was retroactive, and that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder must be afforded parole hearings. The practical effect of the Court’s decision is that those portions of G.L. c. 265, § 2 and G.L. c. 127, § 133A, which mandate a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for anyone convicted of first degree murder, are unconstitutional as applied to juvenile homicide offenders. Therefore, juveniles convicted of first degree murder will be eligible for parole.
Specifically, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the “mandatory imposition of a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole on individuals who were under the age of eighteen when they committed the crime of murder in the first degree violates the prohibition on ‘cruel or unusual punishments’ in art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.” The Court further decided that the “discretionary imposition of such a sentence on juvenile homicide offenders also violates art. 26 because it is an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment when viewed in the context of the unique characteristics of juvenile offenders.” Finally, the Court concluded that the process for determining parole suitability is entrusted to the Parole Board and stated that, “[a]t the appropriate time, it is the purview of the Massachusetts parole board to evaluate the circumstances surrounding the commission of the crime, including the age of the offender, together with all relevant information pertaining to the offender’s character and actions during the intervening years since conviction.”
Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District & others, 471 Mass. 12 (2015) Supreme Judicial Court, March 23, 2015 In Diatchenko (II), the Supreme Judicial Court held that juvenile homicide offenders must be afforded specific rights in order to ensure the ‘meaningful opportunity to obtain release as set out in Diatchenko (I). The Supreme Judicial Court held that a juvenile homicide offender serving a life sentence must be granted access to counsel for an initial parole hearing, funds to secure a necessary expert witness, and judicial review for the denial of parole.