« Fascinating DOJ testimony to US Sentencing Commission about child porn sentencing | Main | Many hats for this road warrior... »

February 15, 2012

"Teen killers get inconsistent sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable piece from Massachusetts, which gets started this way:

Shrewsbury teen Valerie N. Hall pushed her mother down a flight of stairs in 2000, smashed her head in with a hammer and left Kathleen Thompsen Hall to die while she went for a ride with her boyfriend. For her mother's murder, Hall, a depressed and suicidal 16-year-old at the time, served nine years in prison.

Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School student John Odgren, who suffers from depression and other mental ailments, fatally stabbed schoolmate James Alenson in the boy's bathroom in 2007 when he was 16, and after realizing what he had done, tried to get help. Odgren is serving life without the possibility of parole at Bridgewater State Hospital.

Both crimes were ghastly. Both teens suffered from mental illness. Both were charged with first-degree murder. But their punishments could not have been more different.

The dispositions of the Hall and Odgren cases illustrate the profound inequities that have grown up in the Massachusetts juvenile justice system since the passage of a tough sentencing law enacted 15 years ago and designed to punish the most depraved “super-predators” among teen killers.

An investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting reveals, for the first time, that that law is not being applied consistently to the most horrific juvenile murder cases, as it was intended. The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares this spring to tackle whether it is “cruel and unusual” punishment to sentence juveniles 14 and under to life without parole for murder.

In Massachusetts, there is no obvious pattern as to why some killers are sentenced to life without parole and others — who committed shocking, grisly crimes such as fatally beating a 2-year-old — escaped the harsh sentence. Juveniles whose crimes approach the cruelty of the teen whose case triggered the passage of the 1996 law, Edward O'Brien, have escaped the severe sentence, while spontaneous acts of violence by teenagers with little prior record are punished with life behind bars.

O'Brien was 15 in 1995 when he fatally stabbed his best friend's mother, slashing her more than 90 times. He was initially to be tried in juvenile court, but public outcry about the possibility of a lenient juvenile sentence led lawmakers to quickly pass the tough new law aimed at punishing “adult crime with adult time.” Under that law, a teen convicted of first-degree murder must serve life in prison without any chance of being released.

Before the change, juvenile killers could only be sentenced to serve until age 21 unless their case was transferred to adult court. Since 1996, dozens of teens between the ages of 14 and 16 have been charged with murder in Massachusetts, but only seven have been sentenced to life without parole. In only two cases — the fatal beating with a hammer and the stabbing of a stranger in a school restroom — did their crimes approach the depravity of O'Brien's murder of Janet Downing.

Four of the teenage lifers acted impulsively, settling petty disputes with lethal attacks, the review of murder cases shows. Only two of the seven lifers had a record of violent crime, the investigation found, and two had no criminal history at all. “We'd like to reserve the maximum penalty for the worst cases, for the most dangerous individuals,” said Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, a critic of the current system. The seven teens that got life without parole “do not appear to be the worst cases.”

February 15, 2012 at 08:26 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Teen killers get inconsistent sentences":


All discretion should be removed from criminal dependent prosecutors. Once guilt is established with objective evidence, and not eyewitness testimony, the death sentence should apply to anyone 14 and older. The sole review should be for an error in the guilty verdict, and not any pretextual procedural schemes. The review should be done by experienced investigators, and not by know nothing lawyers on the bench. Once the review is completed, the death penalty should be carried out. if the person has a mental illness, it should count as an aggravating factor, 1) the person is responsible for not getting it treated; 2) the impulsivity associated with mental condition unifies all these cases, and explains why the crime took place, impulsivity should hasten the death penalty because the defendant is more dangerous.

Naturally, in the Twilight Zone, upside down world of the lawyer, only the reverse takes place. Dangerous mental patients are privileged and immunized.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 15, 2012 10:36:00 PM

The problem, and no one really wants to admit this, is that if the teen killer kills someone outside his family, then the other family typically really doesn't care about being nice to the teen killer. A teen stabs to death my kid, and people want him out of jail in nine years? I don't think so.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 16, 2012 7:04:10 AM

The problem of unequal punishment is inherent in any system that allows individual judges to show mercy in individual cases. Does anyone really want to get rid of that safety valve though?

Posted by: Not surprised | Feb 16, 2012 11:08:02 AM

Not surprised,

Yes, I would in fact like to do so. Keep the clemency process with the executive as a safety valve for those who actually deserve it but completely bind judges' decision making.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 16, 2012 11:53:19 AM

"Both crimes were ghastly. Both teens suffered from mental illness."

Both teens made *others suffer* because they were sick in the head.

Mental illness is not an excuse to those who care most about the victims of ghastly crimes. It is more of an enriching detail, such as: 'the murderer mostly smashed-in the right side of her mother's head, as she is left-handed and struck her from the front.'

Posted by: Adamakis | Feb 16, 2012 1:10:45 PM

"[John Odgren,]after realizing what he had done, tried to get help."

Didn't realize it whist doing it, but only afterward. How convenient.

Should I proffer this as a mitigator after being pulled-over for crossing the centre line?

Posted by: Adamakis | Feb 16, 2012 1:14:00 PM

When someone claims that he or she is mentally unstable when he or she did the crime, the court can consider them unaccountable. But what about the victim's family? And how does family members deal with the loss of a mother in her daughter's own hands? Terribly painful.

Posted by: Anne Stuart | Feb 16, 2012 6:06:38 PM

I must agree with Soronel haetir, this really isnt very surprising to see this happen.. it all depends on so many things.

Posted by: Andy Harden | Feb 18, 2012 4:23:35 AM

The Odgren case happened to produce a tremendous amount of media coverage. It was the Boston Globe's front-page story repeatedly. That level of media coverage likely made it quite difficult to negotiate down from 1st degree murder, particularly for a DA's office as political as Middlesex County.

Posted by: Paul | Feb 19, 2012 10:58:07 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB