Proskauer’s Amicus Brief Challenges the Constitutionality of Massachusetts Law Mandating that Children Charged with Murder Be Tried and Sentenced as Adults

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On November 25, 2020, Proskauer filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief on behalf of Citizens for Juvenile Justice and the Committee for Public Counsel Services, Youth Advocacy Division in support of Raymond Concepcion, a youth with disabilities who was automatically tried as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 20 years.  Proskauer’s brief urged the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to find that section 74 of the Youthful Offender Act is unconstitutional, reverse Raymond’s conviction and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Background

When Raymond was 15 years old, two adult gang members ordered him to shoot a stranger, promising that he could leave the gang if he complied.  Out of fear, Raymond did as instructed and shot a man, killing him.  Raymond has an IQ of 66 and the developmental maturity of an eight- or nine-year-old.  As a younger child living in the Dominican Republic, Raymond suffered emotional distress after witnessing shootings of multiple family members.  When he was 12 years old, Raymond moved to Boston, where he attended three different public schools and failed nearly all his classes.  An expert testified to Raymond’s psychological, social and intellectual capacities.  Nevertheless, pursuant to section 74 of the Youthful Offender Act, due to his age and alleged offense, Raymond was automatically tried in adult court, where he was automatically sentenced to life imprisonment and given an above-minimum parole eligibility date.  Raymond’s youth and intellectual disability were disregarded at his indictment, trial and sentencing.

Our Amicus Brief

Proskauer’s brief argued that the mandatory exclusion from juvenile court of a child as young as 14 based only on the crime committed and without any opportunity for the exercise of judicial discretion is unconstitutional.  In addition, the mandatory imposition of one of the state’s harshest penalties on such a child without considering his youth and other mitigating circumstances is doubly unconstitutional and runs afoul of the Eighth Amendment.

In support of these arguments, Proskauer’s brief surveyed states across the country that recognize the fundamental differences between children and adults that must be considered in determining the appropriate court in which to prosecute a juvenile, and the constitutional requirement that these differences be considering in sentencing.  Specifically, in 29 states, youth under 16 years of age are not automatically excluded from juvenile court when they are charged with murder.  Instead, the juvenile court has discretion to transfer the juvenile, usually after a hearing considering a number of factors, such as the youth’s sophistication and maturity.  In California, no child under age 16 can be transferred to adult court, regardless of the charge.  Further, 26 states allow for discretionary sentencing to a term of years for children who are found guilty of murder, as opposed to a mandatory life sentence. Judges in all those states can consider the offender’s youth, mental impairment, ability to comprehend the wrongness of his actions, background and any other reasonable factor.

Moreover, the brief explained how Massachusetts’ statutory exclusion of juveniles charged with murder from juvenile court serves no legitimate penological goal and thus is unconstitutional.  Proskauer’s brief pointed to studies demonstrating that statutory exclusion does not promote deterrence or community protection, reduce recidivism or serve a legitimate retributive interest. The brief further underscored the connection between childhood trauma and juvenile delinquency, and scientific evidence showing that youths have a greater tendency to engage in risk-taking and impulsive behavior, are particularly subject to influence from peers and have diminished capacity to participate in legal proceedings, all of which categorically undermine their culpability.  The brief also highlighted how Massachusetts’ statutory exclusion regime squanders opportunities for rehabilitation among young offenders, the population with perhaps the greatest potential for growth and change.

The Proskauer team was led by Steven Obus, Seetha Ramachandran, Adam Deming, Kelly Curtis and Brooke Gottlieb.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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