Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins is highlighting a major legal victory for her office — against four of her fellow district attorneys, all of whom are men.
The state’s highest court on Wednesday rejected a request by the four district attorneys for an active role in litigation underway in Boston that could lead to someone 18 years old - and possibly as old as 21 - being sentenced as a juvenile in criminal courts when convicted of first degree murder.
The issue is now under review by a Suffolk Superior Court judge in connection with the first degree conviction and life without parole sentence of a Boston man who was 7 months beyond his 18th birthday when he participated in the Sept. 25, 2011, murder of 16-year-old Jaivon Blake, whom authorities said was an innocent victim of gang strife in Dorchester.
The shooter, who was 17 years old and also convicted of first degree murder, was sentenced as a juvenile and is parole eligible after 15 years.
Rollins, who is pushing for reform of the criminal justice system, said in a statement and in court papers that she does not need the input of “misogynistic wolf[s] in sheep’s clothing” from her four colleagues to address the issue of whether an 18-year-old’s brain is cognitively different than an older adult.
“For the four men to imply that my experienced and able team of Assistant District Attorneys can’t handle an evidentiary hearing is outrageous,‘' Rollins said Thursday in a statement. ““We look forward to conducting the evidentiary hearing on the development of the brains of emerging adults.”
The four district attorneys who sought the unusual legal position are Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz, Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett and Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe.
The four prosecutors said in court papers there are a total of 92 inmates from their counties who are serving mandatory life sentences for murders they committed when they were between the ages of 18 to 22 -- meaning they would be eligible for parole hearings if the court changes the rules.
In an e-mail Thursday, O’Keefe responded to Rollins press statement and the legal battle he and the other DAs just fought - and lost - to Rollins.
“These are policy differences but it’s become increasingly clear that if you don’t agree with District Attorney Rollins you are called a racist or a misogynist or both,‘' wrote O’Keefe. “Citizens can read the various filings for themselves and make up their minds as many Globe readers already have based on the published comments.”
O’Keefe wrote that he got involved because of the major issue the case raises for the criminal justice system that will be decided by the SJC in large part based on witnesses and scientific information provided during the hearings in Boston.
“This is an issue which will have statewide implications for families of murder victims. We sought to have a voice at the trial level where the record upon which the SJC will ultimately rule will be created,‘' O’Keefe said. “Yes, we will be filing an amicus curiae brief at that time but that’s a little like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.”
The four prosecutors, two Democrats and two Republicans, wrote in court papers that they disagreed with the position Rollins appears to be taking — she generally supports the idea of changing the law to reflect current science. And they argued they need to be in the courtroom and have the ability to call their own witnesses to counter those called by Rollins or the defense.
The outcome of the Suffolk case, which the Supreme Judicial Court has already said it will consider, may impact murder prosecutions in the future and could unravel first-degree murder convictions where the defendant was 18 years old on the date of the crime.
“This is not personal, and it is not specific to Suffolk County or the facts of the underlying case. The SJC has set this as a test case that may change precedent state-wide,‘' Norfolk District Attorney MIchael Morrissey said in a statement. “It landed in one of the three offices which has articulated an opinion that these sentences are unjust or unconstitutional.”
He added: “Our motion to intervene was so that we would be able to submit scientific evidence for the court to consider - which cannot be accomplished by filing an amicus brief. It had nothing to do with ‘investigations, cases, and appeals’ in Suffolk County.”
He said more than a dozen families could be impacted by the ultimate SJC ruling.
Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington and Northwest District Attorney David Sullivan filed a letter with the SJC supporting the defense’s claim that life sentences without parole for those who commit murder when they are 18, 19, or 20 are unconstitutional.
O’Keefe also issued a joint statement with Cruz and Blodgett, noting that the SJC barred life sentences for juveniles convicted of first degree murder in 2014 based on the court’s view that the brain of someone under the age of 18 is not the same as a chronological adult.
“We hold a differing view on a complex and difficult issue of criminal justice policy,” the three district attorneys said in the statement. “DA Rollins staked out a position that such [life without parole] sentences for so called ‘emerging adults’ 18-22 are unjust and that she supports redrawing that line a mere six years later.”
All four prosecutors said they had notified Rollins’ office in advance of their plan to ask the SJC for the right to participate in the litigation. “We respect both the Court’s decision on its motion to intervene but will not apologize for their continuing advocacy for crime victims and their devastated families,‘' the three DAs said.
According to Rollins and the SJC, Nyasani Watt was the triggerman and was 10 days short of turning 18 when Blake was killed. Sheldon Mattis was 7 months older than 18 and was convicted of providing a .40 caliber pistol and instructing Watt on who to shoot at after Burke said he lived on Everton Street. At the time, Watt and Mattis were gang members feuding with a rival gang on Everton Street, authorities said.
Blake was an innocent victim, however, according to Suffolk prosecutors.
“If the SJC were to eventually find that the science has advanced and Mr. Mattis’s sentence was unconstitutional as applied to a young adult, he will remain in prison until he is eligible for parole and then the Parole Board will decide when, or if, he should ever be released,‘' Rollins said. “But we are a very long way from any of that.”