Juvenile lifers given parole hearings for 1st time
BOSTON (AP) - Two Massachusetts inmates sentenced to life without parole as juveniles will be the first to have parole hearings since the state's highest court struck down mandatory life sentencing for young offenders in December.
Joseph Donovan, 38, and Frederick Christian, 37, will have hearings on Thursday. They're among 63 inmates serving juvenile life without parole sentences in the state. Both were convicted of felony murder charges and have been behind bars since they were 17. Neither did the actual killings.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that lifelong imprisonment for juveniles is a cruel and unusual punishment, saying scientific research showed that their brains were not fully developed.
The decision followed a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that outlawed such mandatory life sentences. The Miller v. Alabama case did not abolish juvenile life sentencing but rather gives judges an opportunity to consider mitigating factors on a case-by-case basis.
Delaware, Texas and Wyoming eliminated mandatory sentences for juveniles after the federal ruling. Since January, West Virginia and Hawaii have followed suit.
The U.S. is the only country in the world that allows juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life without parole. About 2,500 inmates are serving this sentence nationally.
Joshua Dohan, an attorney in the Youth Advocacy Division of the state Committee for Public Counsel Services, said in felony murder cases like those involving Donovan and Christian the concept that a juvenile co-defendant is as guilty as the killer is flawed.
"Juveniles are impulsive, susceptible to peer influence, and poor at both assessing risk and foreseeing consequences," Dohan said. "The Supreme Court and Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court have not held that adolescence excuses murder or any other criminal act, only that their immaturity mitigates their blameworthiness and renders them more deserving of a second chance," he said.
Victims' families and others have protested that the parole hearings will force family members to relive painful memories.
But Donovan's attorney Ingrid Miller said the 21 years her client has spent in prison is enough time. She said in his case the man who actually stabbed to death a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student in 1992 while trying to rob him has served half as much time as Donovan.
Christian was charged in connection with a 1994 premeditated robbery in which two people were killed and one was injured. He did not pull the trigger. His lawyer declined to comment on Wednesday.
If granted parole the inmates will be moved to a minimum security prison. It could take up to two years until they are eligible for release.