Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Holds Miller Decision Is Fully Retroactive, Bans All Sentences of Life Without Parole for Children


Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the United States Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama barring mandatory life imprisonment without parole sentences for children applies retroactively to cases on collateral review. In the same case, the court further held that all life without parole sentences for children, whether mandatory or discretionary, are unconstitutional under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

In a unanimous decision, the state’s highest court found that Miller v. Alabama applies retroactively because it explicitly bans “the imposition of a certain category of punishment–mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole–on a specific class of defendants: those individuals under the age of eighteen when they commit the crime of murder.” By applying Miller to all children sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without parole, the court “ensures that juvenile homicide offenders do not face a punishment that our criminal law cannot constitutionally impose on them.”

The Massachusetts high court has now joined the Iowa Supreme Court and the Mississippi Supreme Court in recognizing that the Miller decision applies retroactively.

In the same case, the Massachusetts court also held that any life without parole sentence imposed on a child, whether mandatory or discretionary, was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. “Given current scientific research on adolescent brain development, and the myriad significant ways that this development impacts a juvenile’s personality and behavior,” the court concluded that when sentencing a child to prison a “judge cannot ascertain, with any reasonable degree of certainty, whether imposition of this most severe punishment is warranted.”

As a result, Gregory Diatchenko, who has served over 32 years for a murder committed when he was 17 years old, is now immediately eligible for parole consideration.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick applauded the ruling in a public statement, noting that “Young people, even ones who commit terrible crimes, are developmentally and now constitutionally different from adults.”