BOSTON (AP) - Sentencing juveniles convicted of murder to life in prison without a chance for parole is unconstitutional, the state's highest court ruled Tuesday, falling in line with the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in two cases in which 17-year-olds were convicted of first-degree murder, which in Massachusetts carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the chance for parole. The unanimous decision potentially could affect about 60 other prison inmates who are serving life sentences without parole but who were under 18 when their crimes were committed.
Under current state law, teens as young as 14 can be tried and convicted as adults for first-degree murder.
Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who in January filed legislation to bar automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles, applauded the court's ruling.
"Young people, even ones who commit terrible crimes, are developmentally and now constitutionally different from adults," Patrick said in a statement. "Our SJC has wisely held that, while violent felons will be held accountable, youthful ones deserve every opportunity for rehabilitation."
The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that automatically sentencing those under 18 to life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. The 5-4 decision came in the robbery and murder cases of two 14-year-olds in Alabama.
Because a juvenile's brain isn't fully developed, a judge can't accurately determine whether a juvenile is "irretrievably depraved," the state court said in its decision involving Gregory Diatchenko, who was convicted of first-degree murder for stabbing a man to death in Kenmore Square in Boston in 1981, when he was 17.
The court said in that case that life without parole for "juvenile homicide offenders ... is an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment when viewed in the context of the unique characteristics of juvenile offenders."
The SJC sent the case back to a lower court with an order that Diatchenko be made eligible for parole.
The other case involved Marquise Brown, who was convicted last year of first-degree murder in the shooting death of another teen in a state park in Framingham in 2009, when he was 17. He hasn't been sentenced.
Life without parole for a juvenile is "uniquely akin to the death penalty in that both punishments condemn the defendant to die in prison," the high court wrote in the Brown decision.
Among pending cases that could potentially be impacted is that of 14-year-old Philip Chism, who has been indicted on murder and other charges in the killing of math teacher Colleen Ritzer at Danvers High School. Chism has pleaded not guilty.
The justices urged the Legislature to change the sentencing law for juveniles convicted of murder.
A prosecutor, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley, said his office uses "great discretion" in charging juveniles with murder but argued certain cases call out for life imprisonment.
"Some defendants do not deserve parole," Conley said in a statement.
Tuesday's high court ruling has created uncertainty for the families of murder victims who previously believed the sentences handed down by judges to be final, Conley added.