Crime victims have the right to influence the punishment of those convicted of harming them, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday, ordering judges to consider victims’ statements during sentencing.
“A victim’s recommendation, whether it be for a lenient sentence in the hope of redemption or for a maximum sentence commensurate with harm, is a relevant consideration in determining the appropriate sentence to impose,” Justice David Lowy wrote for the Supreme Judicial Court in a unanimous opinion.
Since 1995, crime victims have had the opportunity under state law to appear in court to share personal accounts and to recommend a sentence, but judges were not obligated to bear the suggestion in mind when devising the sentence.
The SJC said that its ruling did not violate federal and state constitutional bans on excessive or cruel punishment or the due process rights of defendants.
“We all stand equal before the bar of justice, and it is neither cruel nor unusual or irrational, nor is it violative of a defendant’s due process guarantees, for a judge to listen with intensity to the perspective of a crime victim,’’ Lowy wrote.
Suffolk County’s district attorney, Daniel F. Conley, whose office argued in favor of victims’ rights, said the SJC issued a strong statement on their behalf.
“The most fundamental right we have as Americans is the right to speak and be heard,’’ Conley said. “The justices affirmed that right in no uncertain terms.”
He said that the SJC was directing Massachusetts trial court judges to “consider very carefully what the victims have to say about how this crime impacted them.”
All 50 states allow victims to speak at sentencing in some fashion, Conley said.
Max Bauer, the appellate lawyer for Shawn A. McGonagle, whose case the SJC ruled on, said he was hoping that the court would conclude defendant’s rights are violated when victims make sentencing recommendations.
“It would have been a big deal if I won,’’ he said, adding the ruling is “written in a very pro-victim way. . . . Clearly, that was on their minds.”
McGonagle, convicted of simple assault and battery in West Roxbury Municipal Court in 2016, was sentenced to 18 months in the Suffolk County House of Correction by Judge Peter McManus, who heard an impact statement from the victim.
The SJC ruled that judges must make their sentencing decisions free from any emotions that may arise when they hear how the murder of a loved one, a sexual assault, armed robbery, beating, or act of domestic violence changed the victims’ lives.
“We trust that judges, when weighing such statements as part of the sentencing determination, will render decisions guided by the best practices for individualized evidence-based sentencing, according to law and logic, not emotion,’’ Lowy wrote.
Wendy J. Murphy, a Boston attorney who has spent the past several decades pushing to elevate the rights of victims in criminal trials, applauded the ruling but noted that victims still do not have a right to appeal if they are denied the chance to speak.
Still, she said, the court has taken a strong step forward on behalf of victims, especially since defense lawyers can no longer argue that victims should be banned from speaking out on the grounds that the constitutional protections for criminal defendants would be violated.
“For the first time, the SJC has declared that those arguments are basically frivolous and they don’t have any weight in a court of law,’’ she said.
“That’s a wonderful and absolutely brand-new idea in Massachusetts.”
John R. Ellement
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