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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Announces Defendants Under Age 21 Ineligible for LWOP Sentences

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts extended the holding of Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 1 N.E.3d 270 (Mass. 2013) (sentence of life without parole for first-degree murder committed when defendant was under 18 years of age is unconstitutional), to defendants who are “emerging adults,” meaning that defendants who are 18, 19, or 20 years old are now ineligible for sentences of life without parole (“LWOP”).

In what was apparently a gang dispute, Sheldon Mattis and Nyasani Watt observed Kimoni Elliott and Jaivon Blake in a parking lot. In response to Mattis’ question, “Where are you from?,” Elliott answered, “Everton.” Mattis handed a gun to Watt and told him “to go handle that.” Watt shot Elliott and Blake. Elliott survived, but Blake died.

Mattis and Watt were tried jointly and convicted of murder in the first degree. Watt, who was 17 years old at the time of the shooting, was sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 15 years. But Mattis, who had turned 18 about eight months before the shooting, was sentenced to LWOP pursuant to G. L. c. 265, § 2(a).

In a motion for a new trial, Mattis argued that his LWOP sentence violates the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment clause found in article 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights (“article 26”) “because he was under twenty-two years of age when he committed the murder.” A superior court denied the motion, and his appeal of that denial was consolidated with his direct appeal.

The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed his judgment as well as the denial of his motion for a new trial. But the Court remanded to the superior court for “development of the record with regard to research on brain development after the age of seventeen, which w[ould] allow [the Supreme Judicial Court] to come to an informed decision as to the constitutionality of sentencing young adults to life without the possibility of parole.” The superior court conducted three days of evidentiary hearings, taking evidence from neuroscientist Dr. Adriana Galvan, forensic psychologists Dr. Stephen Morse and Dr. Robert Kinscherff, as well as Mattis’ submission of volumes of scientific studies on adolescence and neurobiological maturity.

The Supreme Judicial Court received the record in May 2021 but ordered another remand for the superior court to make factual findings regarding “whether the imposition of a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole for … those convicted of murder in the first degree who were eighteen to twenty-one at the time of the crime, violates [article] 26.”

The superior court concluded in July 2022 that the mandatory imposition of an LWOP sentence for defendants who were 18, 19, or 20 years old at the time of they committed the crime constitutes a violation of article 26. (Note: The Supreme Judicial Court defined those within that age group as “emerging adults.”) The case was returned to the Supreme Judicial Court where Mattis argued that sentencing an emerging adult to LWOP is unconstitutional in any circumstance, but the Commonwealth argued such a sentence is constitutional if imposed after an individualized hearing.

The Court observed “[a]dopted in 1780, art. 26 states: ‘No magistrate or court of law, shall … inflict cruel or unusual punishments.’ In evaluating the constitutionality of a sentence, this court is guided by ‘[t]he fundamental imperative of art. 26 that criminal punishment be proportionate to the offender and the offense.’” Diatchenko. “A punishment is unconstitutional (i.e., cruel or unusual) if it is so disproportionate to the crime that it ‘shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity.’” Id. “To evaluate the proportionality of a mandatory life sentence imposed on a category of offenders (here, emerging adults), [the Court] look[s] to precedent as well as what contemporary standards of decency, as defined by objective indicia, require.” Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). “[C]urrent scientific consensus regarding the characteristics of the class can help determine the contemporary standards of decency pertaining to that class.” Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012).

Regarding precedent, an “offender’s age is relevant to the Eighth Amendment, and criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants’ youthfulness into account at all would be flawed.” Graham. The Graham Court concluded it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles who had not committed a homicide to LWOP “because they lack the maturity to be classified among the worst offenders deserving the harshest punishments.”

In Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that juveniles display “immaturity, irresponsibility, impetuousness, and recklessness,” in part, because the brain is not fully developed. Youth “is a moment and condition of life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and to psychological damage…. And its signature qualities are all transient.” Miller. Therefore, the Miller Court concluded that the Eighth Amendment forbids “a sentencing scheme that mandate[s] life without parole for juvenile offenders because such a scheme precludes a consideration of youth and the circumstances and characteristics attendant to it.” Miller permits sentencing juveniles to LWOP only if, after an individualized hearing, the sentencing judge determines the juvenile is irretrievably depraved. One and one-half years after Miller, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded that sentencing a juvenile to LWOP is cruel and unusual in any circumstance under article 26 because it is not possible to demonstrate that a juvenile offender is “irretrievably depraved.” Diatchenko.

In the present case, the Court examined the scientific evidence. That evidence revealed that, like juveniles, emerging adults exhibit a lack of impulse control due to their brains not being fully developed. Interestingly, the science also revealed that individuals 18 to 20 years of age are more prone to take dangerous risks in pursuit of reward than juveniles and those over 21 years of age. Again, this is due to their brains being in the process of developing. Emerging adults, like juveniles, are “more susceptible to peer influence” than older adults. And the presence of peers made it make likely that emerging adults would engage in risky behaviors. Finally, the scientific studies revealed that, similar to juveniles, emerging adults “have a greater capacity for change than older adults.” This is due to “the plasticity of the brain during these years.”

Generally speaking, the scientific evidence that supported the reasoning of the above precedents applies equally to emerging adults as it does to juveniles. But the Court also observed that the state Legislature recognized a difference between emerging adults and older adults. For example, the Department of Youth Services is authorized to maintain custody of emerging adults until age 21. Commonwealth v. Terrell, 160 N.E.3d 289 (Mass. 2021). And like many states, while emerging adults may vote, enter into contracts, and sit on a jury, they may not purchase alcohol, tobacco, or firearms until age 21. (See opinion for supporting state statutory citations.)

The Court concluded “that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for emerging adult offenders violates art. 26.” Consequently, the Court invalidated the portion of G. L. c. 265, § 2(b) and G. L. c. 127, § 133A that denies parole eligibility to those defendants who were 18 to 20 years old at the time of their crime. Because the state Legislature had not yet provided a parole eligibility scheme for that class of defendants, the Court looked “to the next-most severe sentence under the sentencing scheme to determine the floor of parole eligibility.” Diatchenko. The Court instructed that G. L. c. 279, § 24, as amended through St. 2014, c. 189, § 6 (which sets parole eligibility for juvenile offenders who have committed murder in the first degree) applies to those emerging adults who committed their offenses on or after July 25, 2014. The amended statute provides for life sentences with parole eligibility after serving 25 to 30 years (depending on the presence of aggravating factors). (See opinion for full text of statute.)

The Court further instructed: “Those who committed their offense prior to July 25, 2014, are eligible for parole based on the next most severe penalty that was applicable on the date of the offense. Specifically, those who committed their offense between August 2, 2012, and July 24, 2014, are entitled to parole eligibility after serving between fifteen and twenty-five years in prison. See G. L. c. 279, § 24, as amended through St. 2012, c. 192, § 46. And those who committed their offense prior to August 2, 2012, are entitled to parole eligibility after serving fifteen years in prison. See Brown, 466 Mass. at 689 n.10; Diatchenko I, 466 Mass. at 673. This includes the defendant, who committed his offense in 2011.”

Accordingly, the Court remanded the case to the superior court for resentencing consistent with its opinion. See: Commonwealth v. Mattis, 224 N.E.3d 410 (Mass. 2024). 

Editor’s note: The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts is the first court in the nation to rule that life without parole for emerging adults constitutes cruel or unusual punishment in violation of the state Constitution. Art. 26. The next states to follow Massachusetts’ lead will likely be those with bifurcated state constitutional bars, like Massachusetts, on “cruel or unusual” punishment—in contrast to the Eight Amendment’s “cruel and unusual” standard.

Online Update: With its decision in Mattis, the Supreme Judicial Court joins two other state supreme courts in holding that LWOP sentences for defendants who were over 17 years old, but under 21, are unconstitutional. Recently, the high courts in Washington and Michigan, relying on state constitutional provisions providing greater protections than the Eight Amendment due to their textual differences, prohibited the mandatory imposition of LWOP sentences for those who are from 18 to 20 years of age, and for those who are 18 years of age, respectively. See: In re Pers. Restraint of Monschke, 482 P.3d 276 (2021) (holding that sentencing 18, 19, or 20-year-old defendants to LWOP is unconstitutional under Wash. Const. art. I, § 14's prohibition against "cruel punishment"); People v. Parks, 987 N.W.2d 161 (2022) (holding that sentencing 18-year-old defendants to LWOP is unconstitutional under Mich. Const. art. I, § 16's prohibition against "cruel or unusual punishment"). 

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