NATICK — In an icy North End park on Feb. 19, 1986, Louis Costa, then 16, fired a gun for the first time in his life, repeatedly shooting at two men. On Thursday, almost 30 years to the day after that double murder, he pleaded with the Massachusetts Parole Board to release him from prison, where he has spent more than half his life.
“I’d like to take full responsibility for the crime I committed,” Costa told the parole board before apologizing to his victims, family, and community for the anguish he caused. “The guilt and shame of what I’ve done will always be with me.”
Now 46 years old, Costa offered a detailed accounting of how he and two friends, both adults, ambushed and repeatedly shot Frank Chiuchiolo and Joseph Bottari in revenge for a dispute one of the friends had with them, he said.
Costa was sentenced to life without parole for the murders. But a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2012 declared life without parole for juveniles to be unconstitutional.
That ruling was expanded by the state Supreme Judicial Court into a ban on life-without-parole sentences for those convicted of murders as juveniles.
Costa, his attorney, and five others testified on his behalf. Those witnesses argued that Costa has transformed himself in prison from the wayward and impressionable teenager he once was to a thoughtful, nonviolent adult.
But law enforcement officials argued against Costa’s release. They said he has not shown he has been rehabilitated, and they questioned why his first public statement of responsibility took place in court only last October.
Helle Sachse, a Suffolk assistant district attorney, pointed to the appeals Costa filed throughout the years in which he did not acknowledge guilt. Those appeals, the prosecutor said, deepened the suffering of victims’ families.
“He forced the victims’ families to take that journey with him together. It only shows us that he denied his responsibility in the crimes,” she said.
Noting none of the victims’ family members were present at the parole hearing, Sachse said, “They are angry and upset, and Mr. Costa has essentially achieved in wearing them out.”
“Keep in mind,” she said, “the character of the crime Mr. Costa committed.”
The prosecutor quoted the judge who sentenced Costa to life without parole who compared the shootings to “an execution by firing squad.”
Costa’s longtime attorney, David Apfel, countered that his client was a “textbook case of change” and posed no threat to the public. He said Costa has not faced discipline in prison for 26 years. He also said Costa has become a founder of a group at MCI-Norfolk, where he is incarcerated, that helps inmates focus on their past and take responsibility. Costa has graduated from Boston University and also attends Harvard University seminars, and has trained to become a barber.
Robert Kinscherff, a forensic psychologist who evaluated Costa at age 16 and more recently and spoke on his behalf, described Costa as having no antisocial behavior.
“It’s youth precisely like Mr. Costa that the Supreme Court had in mind,” when making its 2012 ruling, Kinscherff said.
He said research shows that for adolescents, “even [committing] murder does not predict future violence.”
Members of the parole board, whose decision in the case will not come for several weeks, asked Costa about each stage of his life. He spoke of the beatings and stabbings he witnessed from a young age growing up in the North End. One of his aunts, Pamela Corolla, testified that his mentally ill mother, who had given birth to Costa when she was 17, had attempted to commit suicide in front of Costa when he was a child.
Costa described growing up in a tight-knit family, raised by his grandparents. His father was a legendary gangster figure in the North End who was mostly absent from his childhood. Years later, Costa would come to know his father in prison, where father and son were incarcerated together at two different times. But Costa said he soon distanced himself in prison from his father and his still-violent ways.
In part because of his father’s reputation, he said friends on the street “expected me to be somebody I wasn’t. I tried to reach their expectations, and it’s where I think my trouble began.”
The parole board tried to pinpoint when and how Costa began to change in prison. He told them of his quest to acquire an education.
Costa emphasized his close ties with his large extended family. He speaks on the phone daily with one aunt.
Costa’s family has agreed to provide housing, and to help him find work and to care for him, said Corolla. Costa has asked to be released directly home to his family.
Typically, those released from life sentences go through a “step-down” program at a minimum security prison for about a year before being released, Apfel, his attorney, said.
“He has been away from home for so long, but he has always been part of our family,” Corolla testified through tears. “We can offer a loving, nurturing and structured environment. We humbly ask you send Louis home.”
Dina Kraft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.