On Nov. 20, 1986, Rod Matthews, then a 14-year-old freshman at Canton High, lured his new-to-town classmate Shaun Ouillette into the woods on a ruse of having to return a baseball bat to a friend. Once shrouded by the trees, Matthews attacked his unsuspecting victim from behind, pummeling the helpless boy across the head with the bat and then left him lying dead in the snow.
Although it was his first offense, Matthews was transferred to criminal court, making him the youngest child to be prosecuted as an adult in the Commonwealth at that time. Despite the brutality of the assault and the extent of planning involved, the jury convicted Matthews of the lesser charge of second-degree murder, presumably in light of his youth.
The sentence was automatic: life imprisonment, but with parole eligibility after 15 years. It has now been twice that long that Matthews has been locked behind bars with an institutional record free of any major infractions. He earned his GED and successfully participated in a variety of counseling programs available to him in prison. As I testified at Matthews’s recent hearing before the parole board — his third attempt for supervised release — it is time to make his parole eligibility a reality rather than just a persistent illusion.
Should Rod Matthews be given parole?— Boston Globe Opinion (@GlobeOpinion) April 21, 2016
My decision to advocate for the convicted killer did not come easily. Nor has it made me especially popular with the victim’s family, callers to talk shows, or the band of demonstrators outside the hearing holding signs that read, “No parole for juvenile killers.”
There was a time when I was close to the victim’s family, having sat with his mother and stepfather during the trial. Shortly afterward, I worked to establish a scholarship fund at Northeastern University in Shaun Ouillette’s memory.
A decade ago, Matthews reached out to me, wanting my help in understanding his behavior at the time of the murder. I forged a professional relationship with him and have been impressed with his thoughtfulness, sincerity, empathy, and expressions of genuine remorse. Now age 43, Rod Matthews is not the same person he was three decades ago. Of course, who of us is?
In a series of decisions concerning punishments for juveniles, the US Supreme Court has emphasized the idea that adolescents do not have the same level of culpability as adults, regardless of how heinous their crime. The court has based its judgment on three factors, all of which apply in Matthews’s case.
A growing body of research on brain development has clearly demonstrated that kids do not have full capacity for thinking through the consequences of their actions. Young murderers may recognize the wrongfulness of killing, but they fail to grasp the enormity of its impact. This fact is amplified by Matthews’s emotional state back in 1986, which, according to psychological assessments made soon after the murder, was severely stunted, resulting in a profound inability to understand his emotions or to empathize with his victim.
In addition, the Supreme Court has noted the unusually compelling effect of peer expectations and approval in guiding adolescent behavior. Matthews had discussed the murder beforehand with his two best friends. Earning their respect and establishing his reputation for backing up words with action were paramount. For young Matthews, the fact that the two pals failed to repudiate his stated interest in killing Shaun served as tacit endorsement for his plans, even though he has since come to recognize that that was not their intent.
Finally, the court addressed the malleability of youngsters — the greater potential for rehabilitation compared to hardened adult offenders. And certainly, Matthews has matured while incarcerated, with all the efforts he has made to change his outlook and grow as a human being.
Rod Matthews and I have discussed in great detail his thinking and behavior leading up to and following the murder. It is clear to me that he now comprehends and deeply regrets the pain and suffering he has caused others — Shaun, Shaun’s family, as well as his own family. His sober recognition of the devastating impact his crime had on so many will help keep him from ever repeating such a horrific deed.
Matthews is also fortunate to have the support of his family, especially his mother who will shelter him and his brother who will employ him, should he be released on parole. This is critical for his successful reintegration to a free society from which he has been removed for so long.
Having lived near Canton during the 1980s, I have followed this case closely. I am keenly aware of the hurt and suffering that Shaun’s family has had to endure. I have also witnessed the Matthews family’s ordeal — different yet difficult nonetheless.
I testified before the parole board not as an ally of the victim or the perpetrator, but as someone with a professional interest in seeing justice served. And in my judgment, the purpose of justice has been sufficiently served by Matthews’s nearly 30 years of incarceration. Keeping him locked up much longer will neither further the pursuit of justice nor advance the interest of public safety.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University and coauthor of “The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder.”