SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 28, 2014

Our view: Parole bill restores some justice to victims' families


The Salem News

---- — Two local lawmakers have proposed a bill that would restore at least a measure of justice to the families of victims of juvenile killers.

On Christmas Eve, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its unconscionable ruling that under no circumstances could a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The decision extended a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that mandatory life-in-prison sentences for juvenile killers are unconstitutional.

The SJC ruling means juvenile killers are now eligible to seek parole after serving 15 years. That means running the families of the victims through the emotional torment of revisiting details of the deaths of their loved ones as they fight before the Parole Board to keep their killers in prison.

State Sens. Bruce E. Tarr, R-Gloucester, and Barry Finegold, D-Andover, have filed a bill to require these juvenile killers to serve at least 35 years before being eligible for parole.

“The Supreme Court said that it is cruel and unusual punishment that a juvenile would have to spend their life behind bars without parole, but it is also cruel and unusual punishment that after only 15 years and every five years thereafter, a victim’s family would have to relive such a horrible tragedy,” Finegold said.

The basis of the two court rulings is that medical evidence shows that the brains of juveniles are not fully developed, and, therefore, they are prone to rash and dangerous behavior. The Supreme Court ruled that judges must take this into account when imposing sentences and cannot rely on mandatory sentencing guidelines calling for life without parole.

The Massachusetts SJC ruling eliminated this judicial discretion by ordering that all life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

The SJC ruling means that there are 63 killers in Massachusetts prisons who must now be eligible to seek parole after serving 15 years of their sentences. Among these is Richard Baldwin, who in 1992, when he was 16 years old, killed 15-year-old Beth Brodie of Groveland.

Brodie’s family and friends are understandably outraged by the SJC decision.

Kellie Schaffer, the sister of Beth Brodie, told the State House News Service that the SJC ruling “feels like a slap in the face.”

“I don’t believe we should be forced to relive our tragedy again,” she said. “Our murdered loved ones deserve better than that. They deserve justice.”

The ruling would also affect the case of Philip Chism, the Danvers High student charged with the murder of teacher Colleen Ritzer of Andover. If convicted, Chism’s sentence would include the possibility of parole.

While not perfect, the bill offered by Finegold and Tarr, similar to one filed earlier by state Rep. John Keenan, is a good step toward restoring justice to the families of victims of these heinous crimes. Tarr notes that the bill also requires that, to grant parole, the Parole Board would have to find that the juvenile did not have the mental state of an adult when the crime was committed.

There are those who oppose the bill. Joshua Dohan, director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency, told the news service that judges must have discretion on when to set parole eligibility.

“I understand where it’s coming from. Everybody feels for the families that have had to go through this, and there’s nothing you can do to make that better for them. But when it comes to then how do you deal with the youthful offender, the answer is no, this is not fair,” Dohan said. “It needs to be after a reasonable term. Thirty-five years is not reasonable.”

It seems more than reasonable to us, more like lenient to a fault. But it’s more practical than the alternative of trying to push through a constitutional amendment.

Sympathy for the killers here is misplaced. We’re not talking about “kids” who made a “mistake.” These are first-degree murders, which means they were carefully planned and executed killings.

Baldwin used a mutual friend to lure Brodie to where he was waiting. Then he bludgeoned her to death with a baseball bat.

Baldwin and other killers like him deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison.