The state’s highest court struck down life sentences without parole for juveniles on Tuesday, saying scientific research shows that lifelong imprisonment for youths is cruel and unusual because their brains are “not fully developed.”
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision is retroactive, meaning that, as one example, John Odgren, the suburban special needs student who stabbed 15-year-old James F. Alenson in the bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School on Jan. 19, 2007, and received a mandatory life sentence, now could have a chance of parole one day.
“We are very hopeful that the parole board is going to examine these kids’ lives carefully and will be giving them a real meaningful opportunity for release,” said Patty Garin, Odgren’s attorney.
But some district attorneys said they were concerned about the ruling and would argue against parole in some cases.
The decision is a marked reversal for Massachusetts, where juveniles found guilty of murder have faced some of the harshest laws in the nation. The decision also is notable for its reliance on the growing field of research into the juvenile brain.
“Simply put, because the brain of a juvenile is not fully developed, either structurally or functionally, by the age of eighteen, a judge cannot find with confidence that a particular offender, at that point in time, is irretrievably depraved,” the court wrote. “Therefore, it follows that the judge cannot ascertain, with any reasonable degree of certainty, whether imposition of this most severe punishment is warranted.”
“Given the unique characteristics of juvenile offenders, they should be afforded, in appropriate circumstances, the opportunity to be considered for parole suitability,” the court wrote in its decision.
The ruling goes farther than the Supreme Court decision in 2012 that struck down automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles.
That decision, in the case of Miller v. Alabama, involving a 14-year-youth convicted of murder, declared that such automatic sentences were unconstitutional under the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” in the Eighth Amendment.
The SJC’s decision also struck down discretionary sentences of life without parole for juveniles.
Because the Massachusetts high court’s decision is retroactive, prisoners sentenced as juveniles will “at the appropriate time” be afforded a parole hearing.
Lawyers said such inmates will have to have served at least 15 years before being considered for parole.
There are currently 63 inmates in Massachusetts who were sentenced when they were juveniles to life sentences without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder.
Garin, Odgren’s attorney, said her client still has an appeal pending of his sentence, but should that fail, he will seek parole.
The decision drew immediate praise from Governor Deval Patrick, who in September signed legislation that raises the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18 and has pushed to reduce the number of teenagers sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
“I applaud today’s Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling,” the governor said in a statement. “Young people, even ones who commit terrible crimes, are developmentally and now constitutionally different from adults. Our SJC has wisely held that, while violent felons will be held accountable, youthful ones deserve every opportunity for rehabilitation.”
Some district attorneys questioned the decision.
Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett said the ruling will strip away the closure that victims’ families believed they had gained.
“I am concerned for families who thought they had finality about their loved ones being murdered,” said Blodgett, who is president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. “Now they have to go through these parole hearings.”
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said in a statement, “We are mindful of the literature on young adults’ brain development, and we already exercise great discretion in charging juveniles with murder. But we’re also keenly aware of the cases at issue here. Some fact patterns demand life imprisonment. Some defendants do not deserve parole. We will argue — as often and as forcefully as necessary — against parole in those cases.”
For years, Massachusetts has had some of the most punitive penalties in the country for juvenile offenders convicted of murder.
Two decades ago a series of brutal murders galvanized public demands for harsher penalties. In 1996, legislators responded with a law that mandated that juveniles 14 years and older charged with murder be tried as adults.
Because Massachusetts’ penalties for first-degree murder is mandatory life without parole juveniles found guilty of that crime faced a lifetime of incarceration.
As a result, Massachusetts became a leader in the number of youths facing life sentences without parole.
As of last year, the majority of youth with such sentences were concentrated in Massachusetts and four other states: California, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
“People thought if we have an extreme response, kids would stop doing bad things, and that has not turned out to be true,” said Naoka Carey, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts.
Carey said the SJC ruling brings Massachusetts back to the middle — she noted that other states that have abolished life without parole for juveniles include Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas. “We’re in some conservative company,” she said.
State legislative leaders said they plan to move quickly to overhaul juvenile sentencing laws that might conflict with Tuesday’s ruling.
“The legislation currently pending that require the eradication of such sentences will be fast-tracked to ensure constitutional compliance with the ruling of the SJC,” said Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who is the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Carey said there are currently a number of legislative options, but that any law will have to give meaningful opportunity for parole.
She noted that in Iowa, for example, the governor commuted life-without-parole sentences of 38 juvenile offenders and instead ordered them to serve 60-year terms before they could be considered for parole. The Iowa Supreme Court struck down the governor’s decision, saying the 60-year sentences were the “practical equivalent” of a mandatory life sentence.
The SJC’s ruling came in the case of Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 in 1981 when he murdered a man in a car in Kenmore Square.
He has been in prison for more than three decades. The court ruled that he was eligible to be considered for parole immediately.
“I’m happy that Gregory Diatchenko is going to have a meaningful opportunity for release, which he deserves. He’s a living embodiment of what the [Supreme Court] case was all about. He does not deserve to die in prison. He’s not who he was when he was 17,” said Benjamin Keehn, Diatchenko’s attorney.
Keehn was on his way to see his client at MCI Norfolk on Tuesday to relay the news.
He said his client is 49 years old, two credits shy of a bachelors degree, and has been a Buddhist for over 10 years.
The court also ruled in the separate case of Marquise Brown, who was convicted of first-degree murder in a 2009 slaying. He has not been sentenced. The court ruled that because Brown was 17 at the time of his crime, he cannot be sentenced to life without parole.
The Diatchenko ruling was unanimous. In a concurring opinion, Justices Ralph Gants, Barbara Lenk, and Fernande R.V. Duffly, emphasized that defendants need to have a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
They urged that decisions on parole be informed by an attention to the “distinctive attributes of youth.
The state Department of Correction said it would not release the names of the other 62 juveniles who have received the mandatory sentences, because it would violate the state’s criminal records law.
Among pending cases that could be impacted is that of 14-year-old Philip Chism, who has been indicted on murder and other charges in the killing of math teacher Colleen Ritzer at Danvers High School. Chism has pleaded not guilty.
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was included in this report. Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sarah.schweitzer
@globe.com. Michael Levensen can be reached at michael.