The Massachusetts Parole Board, for the first time in its history, approved Thursday the eventual release of a man convicted as a juvenile of first-degree murder, in a decision that was hailed by advocates but that outraged family and friends of the victims of a 1994 double slaying in Brockton.
The board, in a 6-to-0 vote, found that Frederick Christian, now 37, is a “suitable candidate for parole,” the first of as many as 65 inmates in Massachusetts convicted of first-degree murder as teenagers who are or will become eligible to seek their release under two recent court decisions.
Before going free, Christian must successfully complete an eight-week motivational enhancement program, followed by one year of additional confinement in a lower-security Massachusetts facility and prerelease program. Then he will be released to his home state of Tennessee, where he will be required to complete at least three months in a residential program.
“It’s exciting in the moment, but I think he also really appreciates the gravity of the whole situation,” said John A. Fennel, a lawyer for Christian. “This is really by grace that he has gotten this, and he really needs to show that he isn’t going to cause any problems and lead a quiet life. And hopefully he’ll be able to give something back to society.”
According to legal filings, Christian was 17 when he and a friend, Russell Horton, 18, got into a car with three other men on May 25, 1994. The five drove around Brockton before Horton told the driver, Manuel Araujo, to stop at a house so that he and Christian could rip off drug dealers they thought lived there.
When the two men got back to the car, Horton told Araujo to drive to a nearby park. Without warning, he shot Araujo, his brother Carlos, and the man in the passenger seat, Kepler Desir. Carlos Araujo survived and later identified Horton as the shooter.
On Thursday, Carlos Araujo, now 39, blasted the Parole Board’s ruling.
“This right here is not right,” he said. “Obviously these Parole Board members don’t care much about life or they have never really lost somebody. This is not justice at all.”
Araujo, who was shot in the head but survived by pretending to be dead, said the 20 years Christian has already served is far too little for his crimes.
“It wasn’t a robbery,” Araujo said. “It was a setup, and he killed two people. Now he gets out just because he was 17 at the time? That’s ridiculous. That’s the last law they should have changed.”
Horton was tried separately and convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of assault to murder. He is serving a life sentence.
Thursday’s decision on Christian came after the US Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it was unconstitutional to automatically sentence defendants to life terms without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a similar ruling in December.
Specialists said relatively few prisoners convicted of murder as juveniles have received parole, with many states still wrestling with how to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.
“To the best of my knowledge, this is very unusual,” Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director of the Pendulum Foundation, a juvenile justice group in Colorado, said of the Parole Board decision. “Massachusetts is in the vanguard.”
In Thursday’s ruling, the Parole Board noted that while Christian admits he agreed to watch Horton’s back once Horton decided to rob the other three men in the car, he denies that he knew Horton planned to shoot them.
The board said that “the best evidence supports that denial” and also noted Christian’s lack of any violent infractions while incarcerated, his religious activities as a practicing Muslim, commitment to drug and alcohol counseling, and completion of several rehabilitative programs that teach “attitudes and strategies to avoid violence,” among other initiatives.
“Through this commitment and effort, Christian has rehabilitated himself,” the board wrote.
But that reasoning was small comfort to Carlos Araujo, who said news of Christian’s probable release filled him with a sense of dread.
“I think I just became a gun owner,” he said. “I’m not going to let that happen again.”
Barbara Crowder, the former girlfriend of Kepler Desir, who was slain in the car, also expressed shock.
“He deserved to stay right where he was,” she said. “He knew what he was going to do that day. This was premeditated.”
Christian is currently incarcerated at the Old Colony Correctional Center, a medium-
security facility in Bridgewater.
In a statement, Josh Wall, chairman of the Parole Board, said the panel is “working diligently” to implement the SJC’s December ruling.
“There are a number of individuals who are eligible for parole under the court’s ruling, and we will consider each petition with thoughtfulness and rigor, consistent with our practice and the court’s instruction,” the statement said. “Our deliberations involve considerations of public safety, rehabilitation, and whether petitioner, if placed on the proper path with the proper programming and supervision, has the potential to successfully reenter society.”
Christian testified last week before the Parole Board and expressed regret for his role in the slayings, telling the panel that he was “very ashamed.”
Another man convicted of murder as a juvenile, Joseph Donovan, now 38, also asked the board for release last week. It was not clear when the board will issue a ruling in that case.
Joshua Dohan, director of the Youth Advocacy Division for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which represented Christian, said the board recognized Christian’s attempts to atone for his crime.
“Christian spent 20 years trying to improve and redeem himself,” he said.
The office of Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said that the panel ignored damaging evidence against Christian presented at trial, including that he brought the murder weapon with him that night, leaned back in the car to give Horton a clear line of fire, and told a witness to keep his knowledge of the murders “under his hat.”
“I am shocked and disappointed at the actions of the parole board in setting this double murderer free,” Cruz said. “I am still reviewing their findings, but even a cursory review demonstrates that the Parole Board’s findings fly in the face of the evidence at trial and the findings of the jury.
“The board has apparently accepted Christian’s version of events, which he crafted 20 years after the murders of Kepler Desir and Manuel Araujo and the shooting of Carlos Araujo.”