When it comes to the death penalty debate, I join most Massachusetts criminal defense attorneys in opposition to the ultimate form of punishment. As a group, we take the same position as the liberal majority here in the bay state, but as lawyers we tend to view the issue through our legal lens. We see the number of convictions that have been overturned as a result of mistaken identification, prosecutorial misconduct, and dozens of other factors that have landed thousands of innocent people in prison. The criminal justice system and jury verdicts are completely in the hands of human beings, who will never be without error. Thus, there will always be wrongful convictions, and most criminal defense attorneys understand that the potential execution of innocent people heavily outweighs the state’s interest in the death penalty. This view is consistent with the people of Massachusetts. So why, then, are we far less progressive than the rest of the country when it comes to the rights of juveniles who have been convicted of murder?
A recent article by James Alan Fox provides commentary on John Odgren’s appeal of his first-degree murder conviction. Odgren was only 16 years-old when he killed 15 year-old James Alenson. The crime was unthinkable. However, Odgren does not fit the characteristics of the killer for whom a life sentence, without the possibility of parole, was intended. Odgren was a severely troubled teenager who suffered from several mental disabilities including Asperger’s Syndrome, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and ADHD. He, like most 16 year-olds, was not capable of fully appreciating the consequences of his impulsive actions until after they had taken place, as evidenced by his attempt to save Alenson from dying just moments after committing the brutal stabbing, and then crying “Oh God, What have I done?”
Even the most conservative, death penalty, red states such as Texas have abolished life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles, while Massachusetts MANDATES that all children 14 years old charged with murder be tried and sentenced as adults. As a progressive leader in almost all areas of civil rights policy, it is time for Massachusetts to distinguish the cold-blooded murderers for which our first-degree murder statute was intended from adolescents who should serve significant jail sentences so as not to diminish their criminal acts, but who may someday have the chance at rehabilitation to join our free society.