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Yesterday families of homicide victims gathered at the Massachusetts State House to protest a Supreme Judicial Court ruling which will allow a chance at parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Representatives of murder victims Beth Brodie, Amy Carnevale, Janet Downing, Lewis Jennings and Bonnie Sue Mitchell met at noon to present 15,000 signatures in protest of the recent ruling.
“The call came on Christmas Eve,” said Erin Downing, 37, of Boston.
Downing’s mother, Janet, was murdered, stabbed 98 times by her brother’s best friend Edward O’Brien in 1995. The then 15-year-old O’Brien was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. But that could change.
In December 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court fell in line with the U.S. Supreme Court decision, ruling life sentences for juveniles without parole unconstitutional. A nervous Downing sat by the phone waiting in December, but it was not the state that called first.
“My brother got a call from the [Boston] Herald asking our opinion,” said Downing. “That’s how we found out.”
Only two weeks after receiving the devastating news that her mother’s killer could be granted parole, Downing began a petition. Through social media like Facebook and Twitter, she was able to obtain 5,200 signatures in four months.
“People just kept passing it and passing it,” said Downing. Collectively, the families of murder victims at the State House today presented 15,000 signatures to the Joint Committee of the Judiciary.
With the help of Senator Bruce Tarr (R), those affected by the Supreme Judicial Court ruling hope to pass Bill S.2008, which calls for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to serve a minimum of 35 years, rather than the current 15. Although Downing would like to see her mother’s murderer behind bars forever, she believes this bill is a step in the right direction.
“The legislature cannot remain silent on [this],” said Tarr in a statement.
Sen. Tarr is backed not only by these families but by Jonathan Blodgett, President of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. Blodgett composed a letter in early January urging lawmakers to support the 35 year minimum.
Though Sen. Tarr’s bill will not overturn the Supreme Judicial Court ruling, he hopes, if passed, it will bring some solace to the victims’ families. O’Brien, having served 17 years in prison, is now potentially eligible for parole. But few believe this could happen.
James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston, called O’Brien’s chances of parole “extremely slim.” He noted that most first-time parole attempts are turned down and predicted added difficulty in this case.
“[This is a] high-profile case,” said Fox. “In those situations, the hesitancy will probably be heightened.”
As for Downing, she believes O’Brien should never have a chance at parole. “You take someone’s life away, you should pay with yours,” she said.
The proposal for Bill S. 2008, along with 15,000 supportive signatures, was handed to the Joint Committee for the Judiciary at 1:00pm yesterday, just before their hearing on the issue. Erin Downing and a group of other protesting family members anxiously await the bill’s fate.
By Erin P. Friar