Cases challenge no-parole terms for young adult killers


BOSTON — They were convicted of the same crime: the 2011 killing of a Boston teen as part of a gang feud. But Nyasani Watt — who pulled the trigger — will be able to fight for his release on parole after 15 years because he was only 17 at the time of the killing.

Sheldon Mattis, who was just eight months older, was ordered to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings and state laws in recent years have limited or banned the use of life sentences without the possibility of parole for people who commit crimes as juveniles because of the potential for change.

Now, research showing that the brain continues to develop after 18 is prompting some states to examine whether to extend such protections to young adults like Mattis, who say they too deserve a second chance.

“People who say that a person of 18 and six weeks is biologically different than a person of 17 and 364 days belong to the Flat Earth Society,” said Mattis’ attorney, Ruth Greenberg. “There is no support for a bright-line rule at 18, biologically, neuro-scientifically speaking. And the scientific community is in broad agreement,” she said.

Mattis’ case and another, involving a man convicted of participating in a killing at 19, hope to ban life-without-parole sentences for people who were 18, 19 and 20 at the time of their crimes. The two cases were recently sent up to Massachusetts’ highest court, which did away with such sentences for juveniles eight years ago.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 struck down automatic life terms with no chance of parole for killers under 18. But this year, the more conservative court made it easier to hand down those punishments for juveniles, ruling that it doesn’t require a finding that a minor is incapable of being rehabilitated.

Despite that case, more than two dozen states — including Massachusetts — and the District of Columbia have already disallowed putting juveniles behind bars for life with no chance at parole.

Research indicating the brains of adolescents are still developing has convinced courts and lawmakers that punishing teens with the same severity as adults is cruel and unusual because it fails to account for the differences of youth or the potential for rehabilitation.

Defense attorneys say the same rationale should apply to young adults. In the case of Jason Robinson, who was 19 when authorities say he participated in a killing in Boston, the defense points to one psychological study of people from nearly a dozen countries showing that young adults have higher risk-taking tendencies and are more influenced by their peers than older adults.

Washington state’s high court earlier this year abolished automatic life without parole sentences given to people for murders committed as 18- to 20-year-olds. Courts in Washington can still sentence young adult offenders to life with no chance at parole, but only after first considering whether their youth justifies a lesser punishment.

A new Washington, D.C., law allows those under the age of 25 at the time of their crime to apply for a new sentence after 15 years, said Josh Rovner, who works on juvenile justice issues for The Sentencing Project. And bills introduced in Connecticut and Illinois would get rid of life without parole sentences for people who commit crimes as young adults, Rovner said.

Watt was 10 days away from turning 18 when authorities say Mattis handed him a gun and Watt fatally shot 16-year-old Jaivon Blake in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last year ordered a lower court to gather more information about brain development so it could decide whether to extend the ban on life without parole sentences to young adults.

Boston’s progressive top prosecutor, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, agrees there needs to be a change — though not as drastic as defense attorneys would like. Even so, Rollins took the unusual step this year of signing a brief in the case against Robinson to push for an end to mandatory life without parole for those who committed killings between 18 and 20.

She argues in court documents that the studies the defense points to are flawed, and that while it is “undisputed” that the brain continues to develop into early adulthood, “there is an absence of direct evidence linking these anatomical changes to specific behaviors.”

Rollins said she will urge the Supreme Judicial Court to follow Washington State and rule that those young adults must get a special sentencing hearing to consider their youth before punishments can be handed down. She said they should be ordered to die in prison in only “extremely egregious” circumstances — if the judge finds them to be “irretrievably depraved.”

“I will no longer be legally right and morally wrong,” Rollins, the first woman of color to serve as district attorney in Massachusetts, said in an interview.

“We are going to move now to make sure that overwhelmingly Black and brown men aren’t disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system,” Rollins said. “We’re going to do what’s right and at least have them have more hope and opportunity … to believe that they can change after 10, 15, 20 or so years.”

It’s unclear when Massachusetts’ high court will take up the issue. But it’s likely to anger victims’ families whose loved ones won’t get a second chance, and face fierce pushback from some other prosecutors across the state.

Michael O’Keefe, the top prosecutor for the Cape and Islands, said he believes the matter should be left for lawmakers — not the courts — to sort out.

“We’ve taken the step of eliminating life without parole for those between 14 and 18. This has to stop somewhere,” he said. “At some point there has to be accountability for heinous criminal behavior,” he said.

Rollins’ proposal could result in new sentencing hearings for dozens of young offenders across Massachusetts. More than 200 people are serving life without parole sentences in Massachusetts prisons for killings committed as 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, according to data obtained by the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency. If the court sides with defense attorneys, those inmates could get a chance to be released someday on parole.

“There’s a huge uproar that these people are going to get out, and you know, maybe some of them deserve to,” said Robinson’s attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio. “But it doesn’t mean the door is open. What it means is they now become parole-eligible and they still have to get through the seven members of the parole board and get a majority vote before they can ever get out,” she said.

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