SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

January 10, 2014

Our view: Legislature should act on parole ruling

State Sen. Barry Finegold is promising to help the family of murdered teacher Colleen Ritzer, devastated by a recent Supreme Judicial Court ruling that means her accused killer, if convicted, might not spend the rest of his life in prison.

The Andover Democrat’s task is not an easy one, but it is well worth the effort to grant the families of victims relief from this misguided court decision.

The SJC ruled on Christmas Eve that it is unconstitutional for murderers under age 18 to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The court based its decision on the premise that the brains of juveniles are not fully developed, therefore, “a judge cannot find with confidence that a particular offender, at that point in time, is irretrievably depraved,” the court said.

The decision extends a 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama that struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile killers. The SJC decision not only bars mandatory sentences but denies judges the discretion of weighing facts of a specific case and determining that a youthful murderer merits life in prison without parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court relied on similar arguments about immature brain development in juveniles but retained to judges the ability to look at each case individually.

The SJC decision is retroactive, meaning there are 63 killers in Massachusetts serving life sentences who now will be eligible for parole. Nine of these committed their crimes in Essex County. Among them is Richard Baldwin, who was 16 in 1992 when he bludgeoned 16-year-old Beth Brodie of Groveland to death with a baseball bat.

The SJC ruling will also impact the case of Philip Chism, the Danvers High student charged with the murder of Ritzer, an Andover resident. If convicted, Chism’s sentence must include the possibility of parole.

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