How Massachusetts Handles Juvenile Life Without Parole After Miller v. Alabama, The Case of Commonwealth v. Brown, 466 Mass. 676 (2013)

In 2012 the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012). There, two fourteen year olds were convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole, a mandatory sentence under their state law sentencing schemes. The Supreme Court held that sentencing laws that mandate life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This is so because such laws do not permit the judge from considering age, maturity, family environment, appreciation for their actions and other circumstances attendant to their youth and the crime they committed. Exactly what that would mean to juveniles serving sentences of life without parole in Massachusetts was not made clear until Christmas Eve 2013 when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rendered its opinion in Commonwealth v. Brown, 466 Mass. 676 (2013).

Commonwealth v. Brown Does Not Permit Individualized Sentencing

In 2012 Marquise Brown was convicted of first degree murder when he was seventeen years old. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 265 Section 1 requires anyone convicted of first degree murder to serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole. This is what Brown faced at the time of his conviction. Before Brown was sentenced the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) took the case for review. The SJC held that Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 265 Section 2 and Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 127 Section 133A, both denying eligibility for parole to anyone convicted of first degree murder are unconstitutional as applied to juvenile offenders. Consequently, juvenile defendants convicted of first degree murder are now sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. The result is the same as if they had been convicted of second degree murder. That being, they are eligible for parole after serving fifteen years in state prison.

Commonwealth v. Brown Ignores Miller’s Requirements of a Sentencing Hearing to “Consider the Mitigating Qualities of Youth”

One of the problems Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers see with the SJC’s holding in Brown is its failure to reconcile the requirement of individualized sentencing mandated by Miller. Miller suggests that courts consider a defendant’s characteristics and “the details of his offense” when sentencing him. Miller embraces concerns about the maturity of juveniles. Miller discusses the vulnerability of children with regard to the influences from their environment. Miller further expresses concern over the child’s intellectual development. Miller also suggests that a sentencing hearing be conducted to afford the sentencing judge an opportunity to consider individual aspects of the juvenile that might bear on sentencing. Unfortunately, none of this is addressed in Brown. Rather, the Supreme Judicial Court seems to ignore the spirit of Miller and simply apply the “next most severe” punishment associated with the crime of murder.

It is the Job of a Massachusetts Criminal Defense Attorney to Ask for an Individualized Hearing on Sentencing for Any Juvenile Convicted of Murder

Notwithstanding the limitations of Brown, it seems to me the best practice for any criminal defense lawyer in Massachusetts to ask for an individualized hearing prior to sentencing after a juvenile murder conviction. If it is denied then make a proffer of what would be adduced at the hearing. Later Supreme Court cases might rectify the problems associated with Brown.

Attorney Stephen Neyman has been practicing criminal defense law for twenty-seven years. Call us at 617-263-6800 or send us an email to discuss your criminal case.