By Dustin Luca
---- — The fact that a 14-year-old could be paroled if he is found guilty of viciously murdering their daughter and sentenced to life is too much for the family of Colleen Ritzer of Andover to bear.
The parents and siblings of the 24-year-old Danvers High School teacher who was found dead in the woods behind the school in October are decrying the recent state Supreme Judicial Court finding that life sentences without parole for killers under 18 are unconstitutional.
The decision by the state’s highest court rendered on Christmas Eve day argues that life sentences for juveniles fail to take into account the potential for young offenders to be rehabilitated. It paves the way for “youthful offenders” sentenced to life in prison to be given a chance for parole.
In a statement released last week, the Ritzer family said it “feels a deep sense of betrayal and anguish” with the decision, saying it “provides more rights to those youths convicted of horrible and heinous crimes than victims and their families.”
“While these convicted murderers are now provided a second chance through the possibility of parole, victims slain at the hands of ‘youthful offenders,’ possibly even our precious daughter, Colleen, will be victimized again and again,” the family said.
While 14-year-old Philip Chism, of Danvers, has pleaded not guilty to murdering Colleen Ritzer on Oct. 23, the decision affects sentencing options for him should he be convicted in the case.
The Ritzers have appealed to state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, for his help in the wake of the ruling.
Finegold, who met with the Ritzer family Monday night at their request, said they face “an incredibly difficult situation.”
“The family wants to do everything they can to make sure they don’t have to relive it every X number of years, and this is true for any family this could happen to as well,” Finegold said.
The Ritzer family crafted a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick, which Finegold delivered to the governor’s office on Tuesday, he said. He would not disclose the contents of the letter.
While there is nothing legislators can do to overturn the court’s decision, Finegold said there is still room for action.
Finegold said while the state Legislature is not in a position to alter the ruling, the laws enforcing it are subject to amendment.
The court is “the law of the land, but what we’re focusing on is how long someone could be convicted and not be eligible for parole,” Finegold said. “Right now, it’s 15 years. Could we make it later? Could we make it a lot longer?”
The heart of the discussion, at that point, becomes measuring when denying the opportunity for parole becomes cruel and unusual punishment for a minor who has received a life sentence, according to Finegold.
The Ritzer family is not the only ones upset by the court’s decision, Finegold said. A day after a story on Finegold’s planned meeting with the Ritzer family was published in The Townsman’s sister paper, The Eagle-Tribune, the senator said he was contacted by other families who have experienced similar situations.
“(They) are really disappointed by this ruling,” he said.
The Dec. 24 ruling by the court came in the case of Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 when he stabbed a man as he sat in a car in Boston’s Kenmore Square in 1981. It held that life sentences without parole failed to take into account a young defendant’s likelihood of being rehabilitated.
Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett has also voiced his opposition to the ruling at a broader level — from the vantage point of the prosecution.
His office is now preparing for parole hearings for nine convicted killers currently serving life sentences.
“Massachusetts prides itself on being enlightened on victims’ rights,” Blodgett said at a press conference Dec. 27. “And yet this decision comes out on Christmas Eve day? That’s a pretty tough, bitter pill to swallow for victims’ families who thought that these cases had been put to rest.”
It’s a ruling that goes beyond the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Miller vs. Alabama, Blodgett said.
The Miller decision, like the SJC ruling, pointed to recent research showing that the brains of teenagers are still developing, and concluded that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment to summarily sentence someone to life without parole under those circumstances.
Blodgett said that while he and other prosecutors do not dispute that teen brains are different from those of adults, that is already factored into decisions on whether to charge a teenager with first-degree murder.
“We’ve always understood that,” Blodgett said. “That’s why district attorneys have robust juvenile and young adult offender diversion programs, to give recognition to the fact that juveniles sometimes make mistakes.”
“There are some crimes that are so abhorrent and so heinous a juvenile should be sentenced to life without parole,” Blodgett said. “We don’t charge first-degree murder unless the facts are so heinous and horrible that it warrants a first-degree charge.”