With the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May and the groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, elected leaders face and must face and combat the ugly truth of systemic racism in our criminal justice system. Today, 32.8 percent of Massachusetts prisoners serving life sentences are Black. But according to the US Census, only 9 percent of Massachusetts residents are Black.
For some of these men and women, especially those serving life sentences without parole, the interests of justice are no longer served by their continued incarceration. They have made exceptional strides in their rehabilitation, are no longer a threat to the public, and further incarceration would be a miscarriage of justice,Their only hope lies with Governor Baker, who holds the awesome power of executive clemency.
The governor has promised Massachusetts prisoners that he will “give strong consideration to a request to commute a sentence of a petitioner who has made exceptional strides in self-development and self-improvement, and would be a law abiding citizen upon release from custody.” But his administration has failed to act on dozens, if not hundreds, of petitions for commutation, some of which have languished unanswered for years. Indeed the Parole Board has not held a single commutation hearing in the last five years. The petition of William Allen is among those filed and neglected.
In March 2017, William J. Allen, a 46-year-old Black prisoner, petitioned Governor Baker to commute his sentence from life without parole to life with parole. In 1994, when Allen was 20, he agreed to help a childhood friend rob a suspected drug dealer at knife point. While Allen was in another room, his friend stabbed a man to death in a fit of rage.
The district attorney offered the same deal to Allen and the killer: plead guilty to second degree murder and have a chance at parole after 15 years. The killer readily accepted. William did not. He could not comprehend how a jury could convict him of murder when he did not kill anyone.
Against his lawyer’s advice, William went to trial. The jury found that he did not actively participate in the killing. But because he confessed to the robbery, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder under a legal doctrine called “felony murder.” The judge had no choice but to sentence William to die in prison, with no hope for parole.
With that sentence, William joined the ranks of many other Black men who were also sentenced to die in prison.
The Parole Board released the killer in 2009 after serving 15 years and proving himself worthy of parole. Over the last 26 years, the foundation of William’s first-degree murder conviction has crumbled. In accord with a 2017 ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts law no longer permits defendants like William to be charged with, let alone convicted of, first degree murder. Over the last few years, scientific studies call into question whether courts should sentence youth aged 18 to 20 to life without parole, since their brains are not much different than younger teens whose cases are heard in juvenile court.
William proves that transformative change is possible. Through hard work and perseverance, he has transformed himself and has earned the respect and support of multiple members of the community, including Catholic clergy, members of the social service and legal professions, retired court personnel, and retired corrections staff, all of whom support William’s petition for commutation. The Massachusetts Department of Corrections itself determined that William is low risk for recidivism and violence.
But while the law, science, and William himself have changed, the sentence has not. At an annual cost of $91,000 to house an inmate in the state, it does not make any sense, fiscal or otherwise, to keep William and others like him locked up for decades more.
It has been three and a half years since William petitioned the governor for clemency. For three and a half years, the Baker administration has declined to even hold a hearing on his petition. William has done his part under the guidelines by transforming himself from a young man foolish enough to participate in an armed robbery to a kind, thoughtful man who any one of us would be privileged to have as a friend or neighbor. Baker and the Parole Board must do their parts. Justice demands it.
Robert J. Cordy is pro bono co-counsel for William Allen. He is a retired justice of the Supreme Judicial Court and former chief legal counsel to Governor William Weld.