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The state’s high court in 2017 struck down a murder law that had condemned men who never killed to die behind bars. But what about those already facing that dire penalty? They are waiting.

Paul Gunter.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

They are men who killed nobody but have been condemned to die in prison. Men who never fired a shot or wielded a weapon, who may not even have been in the same room as the killing, or known anything about it.

And yet they have been convicted in Massachusetts of first degree murder, and sentenced to the most draconian penalty under the law.

They live, and may die, in a strange corner of the state judicial system, convicted of an offense known as felony murder, which in rare cases allowed someone who joined in a crime but played no direct role in a killing, and may never have intended to harm anyone, to be punished as severely as the actual murderer.


Stranger still, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled five years ago that the way these men were convicted was unjust, and abolished it.

But the high court did not make that ruling retroactive. That means there are men in this state who killed nobody but stand sentenced to die in prison.

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Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons. Patricia Wen can be reached at patricia.wen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GlobePatty.