Commonwealth v. Brown
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
466 Mass. 676 (2013)
24 December 2013
Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution (prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments)
Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, Article 26 (prohibition cruel or unusual punishments)
Marquise Brown was convicted of murder in the first degree, which carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Brown, who was 17-years old at the time of the murder, was awaiting sentencing when the US Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that life without parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The state of Massachusetts requested a stay in sentencing pending clarification of the law by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. On the same day as the current case, the Supreme Judicial Court decided Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District et al. in which it held that both mandatory and discretionary life without possibility of parole sentences also violate the Article 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. The Court had to decide what sentence can be handed to Brown, given its decision in Diatchenko and the US Supreme Court in Miller.
Issue and resolution:
Life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders. The issue was what sentence should be imposed now that a mandatory life without parole sentence for juveniles had been held unconstitutional and in violation of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. The Court held that the sentence should be life with the possibility of parole after no fewer than 15 years.
The Court emphasized that the Massachusetts legislature had adopted “severability of statutory provisions,” meaning that when a portion of the law is found unconstitutional, only that portion of the law is invalidated. Accordingly, the Court reasoned that, as the harshest penalty had been rendered invalid, the sentence most consistent with the intent of the Massachusetts legislature would be to impose the next most severe punishment available for juvenile offenders.
On 25 July 2014, Massachusetts passed new legislation (Chapter 189 of the Acts of 2014) establishing a three-tiered sentencing system for juveniles convicted of first degree felony murder. The three tiers are as follows:
- first degree felony murder with extreme cruelty and atrocity – parole-eligible after a minimum of 30 years;
- first degree felony murder with premeditation – parole-eligible after 25-30 years; and
- first degree felony murder– parole-eligible after 20-30 years.
The law described above was not retroactive; the 60 juveniles convicted of first degree murder before the implementation of the new sentencing system defaulted to a sentence of life with possibility of parole after a minimum of 15 years, including Brown.
For more information on the issue of inhuman sentencing of children, including a selection of case law, please see CRIN’s ‘Inhuman sentencing’ campaign.
Link to Full Judgment:
This case summary is provided by the Child Rights International Network for educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.