Attorneys: ‘Mattis’ to have impact beyond those newly eligible for parole

Kris Olson, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly •
John Adams Courthouse in Massachusetts

Ruth Greenberg can see it — or, more accurately, hear it.

For a decade, the Swampscott criminal appeals attorney has represented Sheldon Mattis, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Judicial Court case Commonwealth v. Mattis, decided on Jan. 11.

In Mattis, by a 4-3 vote, the SJC became the first state supreme court in the country to decide that sentencing an “emerging adult” aged 18, 19 or 20 to life without parole is every bit a violation of the state constitution as when such a sentence is imposed on a juvenile, as the court had held a decade earlier in the case Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., also known as Diatchenko I.

The SJC may have been the first to follow the science of brain development to conclude that life without parole for emerging adults is a “cruel” form of punishment, violating Article 26 of the Declaration of Rights. But it won’t be the last, Greenberg predicts.

First to follow Massachusetts’ lead will be courts in other states with “bifurcated” state constitutional prohibitions on “cruel or unusual” punishment — as opposed to the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual” standard, she said.

Eventually, things will hit a tipping point where life without parole for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds becomes viewed as “unusual” and violative of evolving standards of decency.


About the Expert

Marsha Levick co-founded Juvenile Law Center in 1975. Throughout her legal career, Levick has been an advocate for children’s and women's rights and is a nationally recognized expert in juvenile law.