On a December afternoon in 1987, Daniel J. LaPlante , then 17, broke into a home in Townsend, shot and killed a pregnant mother with a stolen gun, and drowned her two young children in separate bathtubs. The mother, Priscilla Gustafson, 33, was also raped, according to court testimony.
On Tuesday, the state Supreme Judicial Court will hear LaPlante’s request to move up his parole eligibility date, arguing his sentence is unconstitutional because it won’t let him seek freedom until he serves 45 years, a milestone he would reach at age 62. If granted, his request would result in a parole hearing in a year or two.
At issue is whether it’s unconstitutional to require LaPlante to serve 45 years before he could see the parole board. The punishment was imposed by sentencing him to serve three consecutive prison terms of 15 years for each murder.
In 2014, the state adopted a law that says the longest term that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder must serve before going before the parole board is 30 years. But the law isn’t retroactive, and in cases like LaPlante’s, in which multiple crimes occurred, nothing prohibits judges from ordering consecutive sentences that push parole eligibility dates out further.
LaPlante’s appeal has infuriated survivors of Gustafson and her children and the retired judge who sentenced LaPlante, now 48, more than three decades ago.
“He’s broken,” said Elizabeth Williams, Gustafson’s sister. “I liken him to a rabid dog. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to rehabilitate him.”
The case could alter the shifting legal landscape for juveniles convicted of serious crimes, an area of the law that has been transformed since 2012, when the US Supreme Court struck down automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles.
In 2013, the SJC went further and outlawed life without parole sentences for young offenders altogether in a decision that cited research showing the juvenile brain isn’t fully developed.
A year later, a state law was passed requiring juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to serve terms of 20, 25, or 30 years before their first parole hearing, depending on the severity of the crime. The law doesn’t apply to crimes that occurred before the legislation was enacted.
LaPlante’s case has the potential to further limit the harshest penalties young offenders could face by challenging the constitutionality of punishments that prevent them from seeking parole until they reach an age when many people are at or near the end of their working years, legal observers said.
The appellate lawyer for Philip D. Chism , the Danvers High School freshman convicted of robbing, raping, and murdering math teacher Colleen Ritzer in 2013, said he’s tracking the case. Chism, who was 14 when he was arrested, was ordered to serve at least 40 years in prison before he could seek a parole hearing.The new sentencing law for juveniles didn’t apply in Chism’s case. He was given at least 25 years for Ritzer’s murder, the maximum allowed at the time, while simultaneously spending at least 40 years in prison before he can seek parole for the rape and armed robbery.
“We’ll certainly be watching what the SJC does,” said his lawyer, Michael R. Schneider.
Ritzer’s family decried Chism’s sentence as too lenient when it was imposed in 2016 and has been highly critical of the SJC’s 2013 ruling.
LaPlante’s appeal also scrutinizes punishments in which juvenile offenders must complete consecutive prison terms. LaPlante is serving three consecutive sentences of 15 years each for the murders of Gustafson, her daughter, Abigail, 7, and her son, William, 5.
“I could see [Massachusetts] as being one of the first states to adopt a landmark ruling that says consecutive sentences violate the juvenile’s right to a parole hearing,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association.
The office of Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan opposes LaPlante’s request, noting his sentence was reexamined two years ago, when a judge found his youth played no role in the crimes and he required more rehabilitation.
“The sentencing court concluded that the defendant’s criminality was not the product of transient immaturity but was instead most attributable to childhood conduct disorder which ripened into antisocial personality disorder,” wrote Middlesex Assistant District Attorney Crystal L. Lyons. “Such a finding was made not when he was a juvenile, at the outset, but nearly thirty years after his original sentencing.”
LaPlante’s case has followed a winding path.
Convicted on three counts of first-degree murder in 1988, LaPlante was initially sentenced to three consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After the SJC abolished such punishments, Louis Costa , a juvenile offender serving two consecutive life terms for fatally shooting two men in the North End in 1986, asked to be resentenced to concurrent terms.
In 2015, the SJC ruled in Costa’s favor, allowing LaPlante to request a resentencing hearing. The proceedings were held in March 2017 and LaPlante was sentenced to serve at least 45 years before he could seek parole, the maximum possible punishment.
Attorney Merritt Schnipper, who represents LaPlante, wrote in court papers that the SJC has ruled that juveniles are “categorically less culpable than adult homicide offenders” and no judge can predict whether they’re beyond redemption at the time of sentencing.
Even young offenders who committed the most heinous crimes, he wrote, are entitled to punishments that “hold out hope for some return to life outside prison.”
The “categorical requirement that every juvenile homicide offender have a meaningful opportunity for release prohibits a sentence with a  year parole horizon even in a case justifying maximum retributive punishment,” Schnipper wrote. “Such a late-arising first opportunity for release would not be ‘meaningful’ in the constitutional sense because it would not hold out the possibility — even if parole were granted — that the Defendant could productively reengage with the society from which [he] had been separated for nearly a half-century.”
LaPlante is incarcerated at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, a prison for sex offenders, according to the state Department of Correction website. LaPlante requested to be transferred there in 2016, the Globe has reported.
Since 2014, the parole board has conducted 47 hearings for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, figures show. Eighteen were granted parole and 25 were denied, the board said. Four cases are pending.
Jeffrey Pokorak, a Suffolk University Law School professor, said young offenders nationwide are serving de facto life terms.
He’s a lawyer for Arthur O’Derrell Franklin, who is in prison for rapes he committed in Florida when he was 17 and will become eligible for parole in more than 300 years.
Juveniles offenders should be reevaluated 15 years after the crime, Pokorak said, to assess their brain development and evaluate whether they can demonstrate maturity, remorse, and rehabilitation.
“Prosecutors are still treating juvenile cases like adult cases. They are not making allowances for brain development,” he said. “Kids are different.”
Retired Superior Court Judge Robert Barton, who sentenced LaPlante to three consecutive life terms in 1988, said if he had the authority, he would have given LaPlante the death penalty.
He recalled testimony from Gustafson’s husband, Andrew, who was asked at trial why he didn’t look for his children after he found his wife slain in their bedroom.
Barton said Andrew Gustafson’s answer still haunts him: “I was afraid I’d find them dead.”