The family of a Danvers High School teacher who was slain in October, allegedly by one of her students, lashed out Friday at the state high court’s decision striking down life sentences without parole for juveniles, saying the ruling betrays the victims of the most horrendous crimes.
The decision last month by the Supreme Judicial Court requires that juveniles convicted of murder be offered parole beginning 15 years into their prison sentences. While parole would not be guaranteed, the family of Colleen Ritzer said, the ruling grants “more rights to those youths convicted of horrible and heinous crimes than victims and their families.”
“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 in a prepared statement.
“If the individual charged with her horrific murder is convicted and sentenced to life in prison, he must never, ever have an opportunity for parole,” the family added. “There will never be parole for our family’s life sentence without Colleen.”
Jonathan W. Blodgett, the Essex district attorney whose office is prosecuting the killing of Ritzer, echoed the statement, saying, “We have abandoned victims with this decision.”
The statement, released through a Ritzer family spokesman Friday morning, provided a personal perspective on a grieving family’s view of the court’s decision, which will force a major examination of the way the state tries, sentences, and attempts to rehabilitate teenage killers.
Philip D. Chism, 14, a freshman and a newcomer at Danvers High is accused of raping and killing Ritzer, a 24-year-old teacher who was beloved by many of her students. Her body was found in the woods behind the school Oct. 23, a day after she had stayed to help Chism, who had recently moved from Tennessee, prepare for an upcoming exam.
Authorities say Chism robbed her of her cellphone, credit cards, and underwear before dumping her body. He was charged with first-degree murder in Essex Superior Court, and the case would carry a sentence of life without parole for adults. Chism has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail.
State laws allow for teenagers as young as 14 to be charged as adults with certain crimes, particularly murder.
In its decision, however, the state’s highest court struck down the punishment of life without parole for juveniles, saying they should be eligible for parole 15 years into their prison sentence, the standard for an adult convicted of second-degree murder.
The justices, citing a growing body of scientific research, called life imprisonment cruel and unusual punishment because juveniles, classified by,state law as under 18, have brains that “are not fully developed” and should be treated differently than adults. The ruling was retroactive, meaning offenders who have received life sentences as juveniles could now be eligible for parole.
The Massachusetts decision follows a series of US Supreme Court rulings in recent years that have found that juveniles should be held to a different standard. The decisions include a 2012 decision that struck down life sentences without possibility of parole. State courts across the country have issued similar rulings.
Advocates for changes in the juvenile justice system called for quick parole hearings for offenders, while acknowledging the pain the proceedings could cause to families.
“The families in these kinds of cases have suffered the most tragic of losses,” said Joshua Dohan, director of the youth advocacy division for the state Committee for Public Counsel Services, the Massachusetts public defender agency.
“At the same time,” he added, “the US Supreme Court and the state Supreme Judicial Court have spent years studying this difficult issue, and they’ve reached the same conclusion, as reflected in the recent decisions.”
But Blodgett, who also heads the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association and sits on the board of the state Office for Victim Assistance, argued that the ruling, specifically the decision to apply it retroactively, went too far.
Many of the 61 defendants convicted of murder as juveniles underwent hearings in the early 1990s that confirmed they were competent to be tried with murder, he said. In subsequent years, following a series of vicious killings by teenagers, the state passed laws allowing for juveniles as young as 14 to be tried as adults because of the severity of their crimes, Blodgett said.
“We all understand, as district attorneys, the developing theory about human brain development,” he said. “. . . Young people make mistakes. But there are just some crimes so horrible and heinous that life without parole is appropriate.”
Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said in an interview Friday that legislators will have to look at new laws that reconcile with the state court’s decision, while allowing discretion for judges to hand out sentences that address the severity of the crime and take into account families’ concerns.
Wyoming, after the Supreme Court ruling, passed a law offering parole after 25 years for teens convicted of murder. Until then, they had not been eligible for parole.
“I think there needs to be a review of where everybody is, and everybody agrees something has to be done,” he said, calling for “prompt action to reconcile our sentencing policies with the SJC decision.”
Blodgett said the District Attorneys Association will propose ways to address the court’s decision. In the meantime, he said, he will oppose parole for any juvenile convicted of murder.
“This is about fairness to the victims’ families, and the victims’ families should not be lost in the hubbub about this decision,” he said.