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.
In a statement, the Ritzer family said it felt betrayed that the SJC showed more concern for the rights of killers than compassion for their victims.
“This decision should not be applauded, rather overturned as an act of justice and humanity to victims of violent crimes and their families,” the family said.
Finegold told reporter Dustin Luca the ruling “caught a lot of people off guard. I disagree with the decision, and I do believe it should be life without parole for someone who commits a crime like what has happened.”
Finegold said the Legislature “may have to look into a constitutional amendment. We need to look into legislation.”
That won’t be easy. Passing a constitutional amendment in Massachusetts is a complex task requiring the support of a majority in a joint convention of the Legislature in two successive sessions. Then, the proposed amendment is placed on the ballot for the consideration of voters.
There is already locally sponsored legislation regarding juvenile sentencing working its way through Beacon Hill.
A bill filed by State Rep. John Keenan of Salem after the Miller v. Alabama decision, but before the SJC ruling, called for imposing at least 35 years in prison before a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder becomes eligible for a parole hearing and maintained life without parole as a sentencing option for judges.
“The difficult cases are those like Miller (and some other Massachusetts juveniles) where it was not premeditated and not even the defendant who did the actual murder,” Keenan said. “A young kid makes a stupid mistake in agreeing to go along with friends who are going to rob a convenience store, not knowing they are armed, and when the clerk pulls a gun, the other kid shoots and kills the clerk. Those are the difficult cases, as each of us as teenagers made many dumb decisions.
“The Chism-type cases, I would assert, are very different,” he said.
Keenan’s bill has yet to have a hearing, and if the life-without-parole option is off the table, changes will need to be made.
As we have argued, the SJC decision is as misguided as the law the U.S. Supreme Court corrected in its 2012 ruling. The high court determined that in the cases of juveniles convicted of murder, a judge must be able to weigh the facts of a case in establishing a sentence. The SJC prohibits judges from weighing the facts of individual cases. Just as mandatory life without parole sentences are an inappropriate one-size-fits-all remedy, so, too, is the SJC’s blanket prohibition of any life without parole sentences.
The Legislature should act to remedy the injustice the court has imposed on the families of the victims of juvenile killers.