Editor's Note: This story was produced by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
Shrewsbury, Mass., 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 a 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.”
In addition, though five juveniles have been charged with murder in Worcester County in the past 15 years, only Hall was convicted of murder. Three of the Worcester-area teens either had their charges dropped, were acquitted or were convicted of a lesser charge, state records show.
Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. declined comment, referring NECIR to a collective statement issued by all state prosecutors supporting the law.
But examples abound of teens charged with similar — and sometimes more atrocious slayings — whose punishments differ significantly. In one, a 16-year-old went looking for pot at a Brookline High School graduation party, then shot the guest of honor in the chest when he got a racial slur instead. In the other, a 16-year-old stabbed a man 23 times inside his Springfield apartment, returning the next day to steal things from the victim's home while his body lay nearby.
The murderer in Springfield, Edgardo Rodriguez, accepted a plea deal for the 2004 killing of Joel Rivera Delgado, allowing him to potentially walk free within the next decade.
The other teen, Antonio Fernandez, took his 2002 case to trial and received life without parole for shooting Perry Hughes. Until then, Fernandez had never been charged with anything worse than stealing video games.
Some Massachusetts judges have expressed concern the sentence is not appropriate for teens this young.
Odgren's trial judge, S. Jane Haggerty, wrote, in a decision denying his attempt to reduce his sentence: “There is tragedy in a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of a parole for a 16-year-old offender in the circumstances of the defendant.”
Similarly, some judges who have presided over juvenile murder cases have expressed discomfort with the use of the maximum sentence.
“I don't know what the answer is. But I don't think we do justice by sentencing someone 16 and under to life without parole, no matter what the circumstances,” said retired Superior Court Judge Isaac S. Borenstein, who presided over the Fernandez trial.
Juvenile crime rates have dropped in recent years, but criminologists attribute it more to a decline in youth gang activity than get-tough laws. In fact, the once-feared generation of “super predators” never materialized.
Odgren's father, Paul Odgren, said it's time to realize that murder cases are not always clear-cut, and that teenagers convicted of first-degree murder should at least have a chance at parole. He realizes that his child can never again be without constant supervision, but his son has no hope that he'll ever get out of prison.
“The only thing that is worse than what happened to us is what happened to them,” said Odgren, referring to the victims of his son's crime.
“Still, kids are not adults. It's reflected in all our other laws. They can't drive. They can't vote. They can't get married. They can't join the military. Why should they never, ever have a chance to rehabilitate themselves?” Odgren asked.
Massachusetts is the only state in New England or New York to impose life without parole for crimes committed by juveniles in the past 15 years. Nationally, at least six states have abolished similar laws, making Massachusetts a target of criticism even from law and order Texas where legislators recently repealed life without parole for juveniles.
The Bay State is “meting out unequal justice” to teenagers, declared Texas state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who led the fight to make juvenile killers eligible for parole after serving 40 years of their life sentence.
No prosecutors from the Massachusetts counties where teens have been sentenced to life without parole — Middlesex, Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk — would comment on their cases for the record.
But the Massachusetts District Attorney's Association released a statement supporting the law, arguing that teens who commit especially heinous crimes should not get “leniency and mercy that they never showed their victims.”
Tom Reilly, who prosecuted O'Brien when he was Middlesex District Attorney and led the charge for the super predator law, still strongly supports it, saying it has improved public safety.
An adult trial for murder defendants older than 14 “is a perfectly appropriate way of dealing with truly heinous situations,” said Reilly, a former attorney general now in private legal practice.
Some victims' families argue that, if anything, the super predator law doesn't go far enough.
“If it was my decision, we'd have the death penalty,” said Olivia Singletary, the adoptive mother of Perry Hughes, Fernandez's victim.
But critics of the law say that recent scientific studies demonstrate that it's wrong to treat adolescents like adults in murder cases. Brain imaging research indicates that adolescent brains are underdeveloped in areas associated with risk assessment and moral reasoning, making them more prone to impulsive responses than adults, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which opposes life without parole for juveniles.
The research findings have led some lawmakers to rethink their stance on the issue.
State Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, who voted for the 1996 law, introduced legislation this September to allow juveniles sentenced to life without parole to apply for release after 15 years.
“I've had second thoughts,” Chandler said. “Given what we know about how children's brains develop, they are indeed capable of growth.”
Likewise, some jurors in teen murder trials say they are haunted by the cases. Carlotta White, foreman of the jury that voted to convict 16-year-old Kentel Weaver of first-degree murder in the 2003 shooting of 15-year-old Germaine Rucker, said she had no idea Weaver could wind up with such a harsh sentence.
“I didn't think he was going to get life,” she said.
Like Fernandez, Kevin Keo rejected a deal from prosecutors that would have made him eligible for parole in 15 to 16 years for the shooting death of Christian Vargas-Martinez, a gang rival he blamed for slicing off part of his ear a few weeks earlier. Then 16 and with no criminal record, Keo insisted he was innocent right up to the moment he was sentenced to life without parole.
“He was just a baby a few years ago, and now his life is done,” said Keo's father, Vong Oung, who now regrets that he didn't press his son to accept the plea deal.
Parents of some of these teen lifers said they made foolish decisions because they had no understanding of the judicial system. Kentel Weaver, for instance, said he confessed to the murder of Germaine Rucker mainly because his mother mistakenly insisted that was the only way he could get a lawyer.
Another lifer was left to make life-determining legal decisions almost entirely on his own.
Noeun Sok, a 15-year-old Cambodian immigrant, was accompanied only by his sister when surrendering to police in 1999. He immediately waived his right to remain silent and confessed to fatally stabbing a gang rival earlier that day. At his friend's urging, Sok admitted that he chased Keoudone “Tiny” Onexavieng, 18, down the street and put a 30-inch samurai sword in his back.
“I never meant to hurt Tiny. I only wanted to scare him,” Sok told the police in 1999.
Sok's parents didn't attend his trial, so when he began sobbing uncontrollably, the judge ordered an additional lawyer to act as his guardian.
Other teens that had lengthier, more violent criminal records than Sok, Keo and Fernandez have escaped the sentence of life without parole.
Michael “Shawn” Warner's juvenile record included multiple counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon when the 15-year-old twice shot John Rodrigues from behind during a drug dispute. He fled the scene on his scooter and evaded arrest for nearly three years.
But the jury in Suffolk Superior Court couldn't reach a verdict at his 2003 and 2007 trials and prosecutors instead offered him a deal to plead guilty to manslaughter. Sentenced to 12 to 14 years in prison, Warner is eligible for release between 2020 and 2024.
Likewise, Billeoum Phan, a 14-year-old Lowell boy, had already faced charges in numerous violent attacks before he shot Samnang Oth, a feared gang member, during a 2006 birthday party in Lowell. Yet, he was convicted of manslaughter — not first-degree murder — and the trial judge pronounced him “salvageable,” sentencing him to the Department of Youth Services until he turns 21. After that, he'll have to serve five years' probation and an additional 12-year suspended sentence.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University is a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom. Maggie Mulvihill, the center's co-director, supervised this project. Other contributors were Jenna Ebersole, Rochelle Sharpe and NECIR interns Jill Carlson, Susan Zalkind, Carol Cole and Alexandria Burris.