THE CALL CAME ON FEBRUARY 21. Years before, Karen Sullivan Citrano had asked the Plymouth County district attorney’s office to let her know of any changes in the case that put her son’s killer behind bars for life. Now paperwork had been filed for a parole hearing. “To get this call on the anniversary,” Citrano says before her voice fades. She shakes her head, eyes moistening.
Exactly 20 years earlier, on the night of February 21, 1994, Citrano’s 22-year-old son, Edward Sullivan, was sitting in his van outside a D’Angelo sandwich shop in Rockland, waiting for his girlfriend to get off work at 10. That was the night Steven James and five of his buddies, out of school on break, assaulted two strangers outside an Abington bowling alley and another two at a Whitman video arcade. When they happened upon Sullivan and began to taunt and threaten him, he reached for a baseball bat from his van to defend himself. But the boys beat and kicked him nearly senseless, breaking a bottle over his head.
“Enough” was the last thing Eddie Sullivan ever said, according to testimony. James then took the bat and swung it three times into Sullivan’s head, crushing his skull.
Sullivan died two days later at South Shore Hospital. James, who was 17, gave police a videotaped confession, was tried as an adult, and on April 11, 1995, was found guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
KAREN SULLIVAN WAS JUST 17 WHEN she had Eddie, the oldest of her four children and her only boy. When her son was young, she divorced his father, who moved out of state and was not involved with his two kids. Eventually, she would remarry, have twins, and divorce again.
When Eddie was growing up, Citrano worked as a waitress and in retail. And when her son died, she took a leave so she could be a full-time advocate for him. She would never go back. Citrano had vowed to follow each case to the end. That meant she attended nearly 100 court hearings, including appeals, and spent at least 150 days sitting in nine courthouses in front of 16 judges. That’s before you count the parole hearings. “It went on for so many years,” she says.
Two of the 17-year-olds who had been with James and were also charged as adults pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Two 16-year-olds, both of them sons of Rockland police officers, were tried as juveniles and found guilty of second-degree murder. A sixth teen, also the son of one of the Rockland officers, was acquitted. All but James have now served out their sentences. “I was going to make sure that justice was served and to be there for Eddie, who couldn’t be there,” Citrano says of the hours she’s spent in court. Today she’s in the kitchen of her Rockland home, a framed photo of her son, taken just months before he was killed, on a nearby shelf.
“Eddie was very handsome. He had beautiful, brilliant blue eyes,” she says. “He loved, loved his sisters and his nieces.” He had done some landscaping and construction work, was interested in finding and restoring antiques, and at the time of his death had recently moved in with his girlfriend.
When Citrano saw her son in the hospital, she scarcely recognized him. “His head was completely bandaged. They told me it almost crushed like an eggshell and the impact had probably pushed his brain matter . . . ” She blinks back tears. “His eyes were completely blackened, his nose was sliced, and he had other bruises. I felt an immediate need to touch him and almost to will him to live.”
A few days after the call from the district attorney’s office last February, Karen Citrano got a letter from the Massachusetts Parole Board informing her that a parole hearing for James had been approved. “I cried when I read that letter,” she says. Citrano, now 60, can’t quite fathom that her son’s killer could be released from prison. “It’s shocking after all these years this person could be set free,” she says. “This brings it all back.”
THE ASSAULT CREATED A SENSATION AT THE TIME not only for its brutality and randomness — prosecutors at the trial called it a “night of wilding” — but also for the ages of the perpetrators. Today, their ages are once again relevant.
In December, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that anyone convicted of first-degree murder committed before the age of 18 and sentenced to mandatory life without parole is eligible for a parole hearing. The ruling was in an appeal by Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 when he stabbed a man to death during an armed robbery in 1981. The decision followed a US Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that mandatory life in prison without parole for juvenile killers was unconstitutional, calling it cruel and unusual punishment. In its ruling, the Massachusetts court ordered a “meaningful opportunity” for parole based on “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Both courts relied on research that indicates teenagers’ brains aren’t fully developed, making the youths both less culpable and more amenable to rehabilitation.
For more than a decade, Massachusetts had some of the harshest penalties in the country for juvenile killers; a 1996 law, passed following several high-profile killings by youths, provided that those as young as 14 be tried as adults when charged with first- or second-degree murder. It wasn’t until September 2013 that Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation raising the age of adult jurisdiction for any crime from 17 to 18.
Because of the SJC ruling last December, 44 convicted murderers in Massachusetts could be released on parole — those who have already served at least 15 years, the minimum term for a second-degree murder conviction. A spokesman for the state parole board says that 65 current Massachusetts inmates were juveniles when they were sentenced to life in prison.
In one of the two hearings held so far, the parole board unanimously approved parole for Frederick Christian, who was 17 when he was involved in the shooting deaths of two men during a drug theft. Though he wasn’t the shooter, Christian was in the car when his 18-year-old friend shot the men. The parole board noted that Christian, now 37, had been active in many prison programs and was not likely to break any laws. The release process will take several months.
STEVEN JAMES’S STORY WAS GRIM from the start. His childhood is described in court papers as one marred by abandonment, placements in multiple foster homes, mental illness, and physical and sexual abuse.
The details are documented in the motion for a new trial that was filed by his attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio. James’s mother was 14 when she became pregnant with him. She abandoned him at age 2 or 3 because he was “too difficult to manage.” Later she would be diagnosed as bipolar, with a drug and alcohol addiction. James’s father was 15 when Steven was born. He remained with his son after his mother left. But when Steven was 4 or 5, his father requested that the state Department of Social Services take custody because, according to court papers, he “blamed his son for the breakup with his long-term girlfriend.” The department would retain custody of James until his arrest at 17. By then, he had been in 24 different placements, including foster and group homes, hospitals, and the Department of Youth Services, and at times was suicidal.
“Upon dropping Steven off at DSS,” according to the motion, “the father admitted to punching Steven in the face multiple times. Despite that admission, no charges were filed.” It doesn’t get much better. When James was in kindergarten, he was prescribed Ritalin for behavioral problems. At age 6, he was diagnosed with cerebral dysfunction that indicated dyslexia. When he was about 10 years old, living at a residential treatment center in Lancaster run by the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, he was described in an evaluation as “a seriously disturbed boy who has tried to master the chaos in his world by riding the whirlwind, by proactively seizing the initiative in harmful encounters rather than passively enduring them. . . . He can barely imagine and has rarely experienced another person making an honest, meaningful commitment to him, and his aggression has been his only reliable avenue” of response.
At age 15, James was admitted to Somerville Hospital, where he was diagnosed with PTSD and an impulse control disorder. At 16, his behavior was escalating to “explosive outbursts,” wrote Dr. Lani J. Nicholson, then a psychiatrist for the South Shore Mental Health Beal Street Residence, the teen group home where he was living. According to court papers, she prescribed lithium, Inderal, and Haldol to treat aggression and stabilize his mood. Later, James told his doctor that he had stopped taking yet another of his prescribed drugs. Scapicchio notes: “This was important, because if Steven James did not take all of his medication as prescribed for his diagnosed mental disorder, he could relapse into more impulsive assaultive behavior.”
In November 1993, James was beaten up by a group of men, according to Scapicchio’s motion, and suffered a concussion and facial injuries. On February 16, 1994, he told his doctor that one of his attackers had been charged with killing another person in a different assault. A week later, Eddie Sullivan was dead.
IN ONE RESPECT, STEVEN JAMES has been lucky. He has Scapicchio, a prominent and successful Boston defense attorney, on his side. She was appointed to his case in 2012 by the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services, which provides counsel for indigent defendants. An aggressive advocate with her own practice, she recently won a $5 million settlement from the City of Boston for Shawn Drumgold, who spent nearly 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. He was sentenced to life without parole. Scapicchio had represented him since 1991. In 2005, she appeared before the Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of federal sentencing guidelines in United States v. Duncan Fanfan, a convicted drug dealer. As a result, the federal mandatory sentencing system was abolished.
Though James was given a parole hearing date of May 29, Scapicchio chose to postpone it because, she says, she is awaiting a decision on her motions for a new trial or a lesser sentence. “Without question, I would feel safe with him out [of prison],” she says in a recent phone interview. “He’s a different person from when he went in.”
Besides arguing that James’s abusive and abandoned childhood left him deeply scarred, Scapicchio says he is very remorseful, and has been so all along. “Steven voluntarily called the police and voluntarily returned to the scene where he was placed under arrest,” she says. “He was crying and upset.” Scapicchio has meticulously researched his background in an effort to show that he was a lost child. She also got his parents, siblings, and family friends to appear in the courtroom on April 25 as part of the request for a new trial. James had not seen his father in 30 years. “It’s tremendously uplifting to him to know his family is standing behind him now,” says Scapicchio.
KAREN SULLIVAN CITRANO WAS IN COURT that day, too, and says she will be at any proceeding concerning James. “To me, this parole hearing is horrendous,” she says. “My son’s not going to get a chance to get his brain repaired.’’ About James she says, “I feel he is very disturbed and there has been no rehabilitation.”
She recalls his trial and remembers seeing the splintered and bloodied bat that killed her son. As for the Supreme Court’s argument that a teenager’s brain isn’t as developed as an adult’s, she counters: “Who thinks of taking a bat to someone’s head with no consequences? Even a small child would know better.”
Still, Citrano is worried. So much time has passed, and many of those who supported her two decades ago are no longer around to help with an appearance in court or a letter to the parole board. Assistant District Attorney Richard Savignano, the lead prosecutor against James, is now a District Court judge in Stoughton and as such cannot be involved. Citrano’s father, who attended all the trials and served as a family spokesperson, died in 2004.
Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz says he will be at the parole hearing. “You have someone brutally murdering an unarmed person lying face down in a parking lot by bashing his head in with a baseball bat,” says Cruz, who was an attorney in private practice at the time of the murder. “There are some people who are evil, who will do terrible things, and it doesn’t matter their age. We have to hold them accountable for their actions.” A bill introduced in January at the behest of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association would require juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to serve at least 35 years in prison.
Yet Scapicchio says that James, who is now 37 years old, has changed. “I think he’s made tremendous progress in terms of the kid they locked up at 17 and now,” she says. In a telephone interview from MCI-Shirley, James says he will tell the parole board that he was young, immature, and impulsive at the time of the murder. “I didn’t realize the repercussions of what I did.”
In 2007, he was confirmed in the Catholic Church. He now attends services five times a week and recently sponsored another inmate for confirmation. James spends much of his time in church rehabilitation groups “that help people deal with their past and work through it,” he says. He earned his high school equivalency diploma behind bars and says he has taken “everything available” to him: courses on anger management, violence reduction, cognitive skills, and a 12-step program.
He reads art books and draws greeting cards for other inmates and posters for the prison church. If he is released, he says, he’d like to work in graphic design or help at-risk teens. What would he say to Eddie Sullivan’s mother if he had the chance? “I would tell her I’m extremely sorry for the pain I have caused her and her family. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it and wish I could take it back. I would like to ask the family for forgiveness.”
Holly James was 8 when she learned she had an older brother named Steven and that he was in prison for murder. After Steven was born, their mother had five more children by three men, says Holly, who is 27 and doesn’t share a father with Steven. She and the other children also grew up in and out of various homes, including foster and residential homes for all but the youngest, she says.
Holly, who is a senior account executive in telecommunications, says she has made an effort in the last few years to keep in touch with Steven, visiting him in prison “and trying to support him emotionally and financially.”
“He never had that support,” says James, who has two children and lives south of the Boston area. “He’s very bright, he’s very caring. If I’m sick, I probably get six phone calls from him, when he can call and check to see how I’m doing.” Still, she has asked him about that night in the parking lot. “I had to have that conversation with him before I could open up my life to him,” she says.
“That’s his biggest regret, that he should have helped him” — Sullivan — “above and beyond not hitting him. That’s something that he lives with.” Because of his religious faith, she says, her brother fears what will happen after he dies. “When it comes to the crime he’s convicted of, he’s going to ultimately pay for that one day, and I know that scares him.”
On April 25 in Brockton Superior Court, Scapicchio requested that James be resentenced to manslaughter and filed a motion for a new trial because, she says, the legal issues around mental competency raised at the original trial have altered. “They’ve changed dramatically, given the issues with adolescent brain development,” she says. James’s “intermittent explosive disorder” was discarded by the jury, she says, because science had not yet established it as a serious condition. “Now, it’s recognized as a real mental disorder that has its onset in the late teens, early 20s. My position is that the acceptance of that issue may have made a difference in front of the jury.”
On June 11, back in court on Scapicchio’s motion for a new trial, both families gathered. Edward Sullivan’s mother, uncle, and three sisters were there, as were Steven James’s mother, brother, sister, and cousins. The two families sat in the same row, separated by an aisle, and listened as Scapicchio and Matthew Libby, the assistant district attorney, offered differing views of James before Judge Cornelius Moriarty. James, shackled at the wrists and ankles, his hairline now receding, glanced briefly at his family.
James spent nearly six years in solitary confinement for various prison infractions early on, and Scapicchio told the judge she feared the parole board would hold that against him, urging Moriarty instead to grant him a mitigation hearing. Libby disagreed, saying that the parole board is the appropriate venue for James, as determined by the recent decision in the state’s high court.
Before this court session, James’s mother, Darlene James, told the Globe that her son “has definitely changed” since the killing. “He’s done a lot in prison, he believes in his faith in God.” She noted that she was only 14 when she had him, and acknowledged that he had a tough childhood. “You try to do the right thing,” she said. “You hope that he gets adopted.”
Sullivan’s mother hobbled into the courtroom a week after she’d had leg surgery at the same hospital where her son had died. When a return court date in September was granted, she was disappointed but not surprised. “This whole thing can be drawn out again, and that’s what makes it so hard,” Citrano said. “But I’ll be here.”
After her son’s death, Citrano earned a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, and today she is a social worker in Brockton. She says she’s drawn to those experiencing grief. She herself has tried everything to heal — “taken anger walks, done art therapy, journaled, spoken out about the case, done yoga, reiki, massage” — and worked on a book about her son. She calls it One Cold Night in February. “I wrote it 13 years ago and my goal was to get it published at 20 years” after her son’s death, she says. Now “I discover my journey isn’t over.”
Mostly, she says, it’s the support of the people around her that has helped her through, and her faith that one day, she will be with her son. “I have a lot of gratitude that I was not only allowed to give birth to my son, but was able to hold him as he took his last breath, all 6 foot 2 of him,” she says. He would have turned 43 on March 10. As the years pass, she thinks about all the losses. Would he be married? Have children? His girlfriend — the one he was waiting to drive home from D’Angelo that terrible night — has married and has children. And at the wedding of her son’s best friend, Citrano sought refuge in a bathroom during the mother-son dance. It was too painful to watch.
Karen Sullivan Citrano will tell the parole board about her son’s life, and about his death. “He was so good to me, his grandparents, and his sisters,” she says. “He was only 22. He was just starting out.”
Bella English, a Globe staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org