Thursday, November 22, 2007

Massachusetts Youthful Offender Law Challenged in Worcester

The Massachusetts "Youthful Offender Law," passed in 1996, under which children between the ages of 14 and 17 charged with first or second degree murder are automatically tried as adults in Superior Court and face the same sentences as adults, including mandatory life in prison without parole for first degree murder, is being challenged as violative of the US and state constitutions in Worcester Superior Court in a case involving a 16-year-old recently charged with murder in the first degree. The law is being challenged, according to the article in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette (Worcester Telegram & Gazette News: "Adult trial law challenged/ Milford teen faces life sentence in fatal stabbing By Gary V. Murray TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF") , as violative of constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment and on due process grounds.

As mentioned in my recent post Deadly Delinquents, Deadbeat Dads, and the Dangers of Demonization, there is also international human rights law support available to challenge such laws. Unfortunately, state and federal courts all the way up to the US Supreme Court often do not show the appropriate respect for, or even attention to, international law. But I say pile it on. This looks to be an interesting challenge to a bad law, one that in my opinion is violative of human rights law and of US and state constitutional law.

"WORCESTER— Lawyers for a Milford teenager charged in a fatal stabbing are challenging the constitutionality of a state law requiring that juvenile murder suspects between the ages of 14 and 17 be tried as adults. Lawyers John G. Swomley and Kenneth J. King, who represent Patrick I. Powell, contend in a motion to dismiss the murder charge pending against Mr. Powell in Worcester Superior Court that subjecting their client to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment if he is convicted would expose him to cruel and unusual punishment under the state and federal constitutions and deny him due process. Mr. Powell was 16 when he was charged with murder in the Jan. 6, 2006, stabbing death of 21-year-old Daniel Columbo during an altercation outside Mr. Columbo’s home at 26 Carroll St. in Milford. Mr. Columbo died as a result of a stab wound to the chest allegedly inflicted by Mr. Powell.....

Mr. Swomley, who was appointed to represent Mr. Powell, now 18, and Mr. King, who is affiliated with the Suffolk University Law School’s Juvenile Justice Center, argue in their motion to dismiss that a juvenile offender is less culpable than an adult who engages in similar misconduct because of 'psychological and cognitive immaturity.'

'Recent advances in neuroscience explain that a juvenile’s lack of impulse control, inability to consider consequences of actions or foresee alternative courses of action and propensity to take risks that an adult would not take are products of the juvenile’s incomplete cognitive development,' according to their motion. Mr. Swomley and Mr. King are seeking to introduce expert testimony at a Jan. 16 hearing on their motion, contending 'that when a juvenile’s incomplete development is understood, it becomes apparent that juveniles are sufficiently different from adults that they cannot constitutionally be subjected to the same mandatory penalties as adults. That is, a life without parole sentence implies a determination that a juvenile offender is as culpable as an adult who commits similar acts and is irredeemable. Evidence from neuroscience demonstrates that neither premise can withstand scrutiny,' the lawyers wrote."

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