On June 20, 2009, a seventeen year old man shot and killed his friend in Callahan State Park, located in Framingham. According to the police, the defendant had accused the alleged victim of stealing his marijuana at a party the day before the murder. After the defendant made the accusation, the two got into a fistfight, and the defendant lost. The next day, the defendant reportedly told the alleged victim that they were going to smoke marijuana in the park. Once they got there, the defendant shot the alleged victim, who subsequently died. According to an article in the MetroWest Daily News, the severity of the sentence the court can impose in the case is currently in dispute.
Even though thirty-nine other states and the federal government use eighteen as the starting age for adult criminal jurisdiction, under current Massachusetts law, all seventeen year olds accused of a crime are treated as adults, regardless of the severity of the offense. Therefore, although the defendant was just seventeen at the time of the murder, because it occurred in Massachusetts, he was tried as an adult. On August 22, 2012, following a trial, he was convicted of first-degree murder.
Under G. L. c. 265, § 2, a first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole. However, on June 25, 2012, after the defendant committed the murder but before he was convicted at trial, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Miller v. Alabama. This decision held that mandatory life sentences for defendants who committed crimes when they were under the age of eighteen are illegal because such sentences are a violation of the VIII Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. In light of the Miller decision, and the fact that the defendant was seventeen at the time of the murder, the trial court judge in the defendant’s case was not legally allowed to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole after his conviction. Both the defense and the prosecution asked the court to hold a hearing to determine what sentence the court could and should impose in the case.
The prosecution sought to argue that the court had the authority to sentence the defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and should do so. In other words, even though an automatic sentence of life without parole is illegal following the Miller decision, the prosecution sought to argue that the court still had the authority to sentence an individual convicted of first degree murder to life without parole, if the court determined that such a sentence was reasonable in the context of the case. The prosecution further sought to argue that if the judge declined to impose a sentence of life without parole, the court had the authority to impose a sentence of life, and set the minimum term that the defendant must serve before parole eligibility – for example, the court could determine that the defendant should serve at least thirty years before becoming eligible for parole.
The defendant’s attorney also agreed that a sentencing hearing was appropriate, but wanted a different outcome. Specifically, the attorney sought to argue that the court had the authority to sentence the defendant to less than a life sentence, such as twenty years, because of the ruling in Miller. The court, however, disagreed with both parties and determined that because there is currently no mechanism in Massachusetts law that permits a sentencing hearing for a first-degree murder conviction, the court had no choice but to sentence the defendant to life in prison with the chance of parole after 15 years – which is the mandatory sentence for a second-degree murder conviction.
The prosecution then sought relief from the Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that the SJC should intervene and order that the trial judge need not wait for an “express legislative amendment of the sentencing statute” before holding an “individualized sentencing hearing.” On September 12, 2013, both the prosecution and the defense argued before the SJC and each put forth the respective arguments referenced above.
The SJC has not made a ruling yet, but it is likely that the court will agree with the parties that the trial court could and should hold an individualized sentencing hearing. Miller was premised on the fact that those under the age of eighteen deserve special consideration because of their age. Therefore, how could a trial judge make an informed decision as to what that consideration should be without a hearing? The SJC is unlikely comment on what sentence the trial court should impose, however, given the impending signing of the Raise the Age Legislation, the SJC may indicate that some deference to the defendant would be appropriate.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a serious crime as a juvenile, but is facing prosecution for those charges as an adult, you will need an experienced and skilled defense attorney to determine whether the SJC’s decision in this case, or the Raise the Age Legislation, will impact your case. Contact attorney Daniel Cappetta for a free consultation on this issue today.