BOSTON -- With the state's highest court ruling last week that juveniles can't be sentenced to life in prison without parole, Middlesex County has eight people, including the notorious murderer Daniel LaPlante, who could be immediately eligible for parole -- and possibly freedom.
"This kid was a savage," said retired Lowell Superior Court Judge Robert Barton, who in 1989 sentenced the Townsend teen to three life sentences without parole, believing he'd never be free again.
Twenty-six years ago, LaPlante was 17 when he was convicted of first-degree murder in the Dec. 1, 1987, rape and murder of Patricia Gustafson, 33, and her two young children -- Abigail, 7, and William, 5 -- in their Townsend home.
Police found Gustafson, a nursery-school teacher, in a bedroom with a pillow placed over her head to muffle the sound of the gunshots when LaPlante shot her. Police found Abigail and William drowned in separate bathtubs in the house.
The murders may have been a result of a burglary gone bad. The troubled teen had a history of breaking into area homes and "terrorizing" people by moving objects and leaving some items behind.
"In my 22 years on the bench," Barton recalled recently, "I tried three triple murders, LaPlante, Peter Contos and Kenneth Seguin. LaPlante was the most savage.''
But due to a recent decision by the state Supreme Judicial Court, LaPlante, now in his 40s, may get his first chance at parole after nearly three decades behind bars.
Another convicted murderer, Steven Ward, could now face the Parole Board after 25 years behind bars.
Ward, who was 16 on Sept. 18, 1988, was convicted of beating and stabbing to death 73-year-old Louis Pozycek of Lowell, a homeless man. Ward kicked Pozycek, fracturing his nose and then stabbed him seven or eight times.
Bragging that he beat and stabbed Pozycek, Ward brought his friends to see where Pozycek was lying on a foam pad, bleeding from stab wounds and unable to move. To make sure Pozycek didn't talk, Ward, Michael Morrisette and Brian Gobis stabbed Pozycek several more times.
Ward was sentenced to life without parole for the murder.
Noun Sok, of Lowell, was 15 on Jan. 12, 1999, when he chased and fatally stabbed rival gang member Keoudone "Tiny" Onexavieng, 18, plunging a 30-inch samurai sword in Onexavieng's back.
SJC ruling is 'retroactive'
The SJC last Tuesday struck down life sentences without parole for two 17-year-old defendants -- Gregory Diatchenko and Marquise Brown -- who were each convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in unrelated cases.
The decision is retroactive, meaning prisoners sentenced as juveniles will "at the appropriate time" be afforded a parole hearing before the state Parole Board.
Lawyers say that eligible inmates will have to have served at least 15 years before being considered for parole. But state legislative leaders have said they plan to move quickly to overhaul juvenile sentencing laws that might conflict with the SJC's ruling.
There are currently 63 inmates in Massachusetts who were sentenced when they were juveniles to life sentences without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder.
Another area case, 61-year-old Walter Shelley, was convicted in September of first-degree murder in the 1969 murder of 15-year-old John McCabe of Tewksbury, but is awaiting sentencing. Shelley, who was 17 at the time of the killing, had his sentencing postponed pending the SJC's decision. Instead of receiving a sentence of life in prison without parole, Shelley will likely be sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years.
Tony Heng, 17, of Lowell, has been charged, but not convicted of first-degree murder in the June 19, 2010, fatal shooting of a rival gang member, 19-year-old Juan Ferrer, outside a Chapel Street home in Lowell.
Brain research guides ruling
The SJC wrote that scientific research shows that lifelong imprisonment for youths is cruel and unusual because their brains are "not fully developed."
"Simply put, because the brain of a juvenile is not fully developed, either structurally or functionally, by the age of 18, a judge cannot find with confidence that a particular offender, at that point in time, is irretrievably depraved," the court wrote.
"Therefore, it follows that the judge cannot ascertain, with any reasonable degree of certainty, whether imposition of this most severe punishment is warranted."
The SJC decision comes in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sentencing under age 18 to life without parole violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishments.''
Judicial discretion removed
While the Supreme Court decision gave judges sentencing discretion, the Massachusetts high court removed any discretion and banned a sentence with no parole for any juvenile.
The SJC's decision is a distinct reversal for Massachusetts, where juveniles found guilty of murder have faced some of the harshest laws in the nation. The decision also is notable for its reliance on the growing field of research into the juvenile brain.
As of last year, the majority of youth with such sentences were concentrated in Massachusetts and four other states: California, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
The SJC's decision in Massachusetts to abolish life without parole for juveniles joins similar decisions in Wyoming, Colorado and Texas, said Naoka Carey, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts.
The decision drew immediate praise from Gov. Deval Patrick, who in September signed legislation that raises the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 from 17, and has pushed to reduce the number of teenagers sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
"Young people, even ones who commit terrible crimes, are developmentally and now constitutionally different from adults. Our SJC has wisely held that, while violent felons will be held accountable, youthful ones deserve every opportunity for rehabilitation," Patrick said in a statement.
But Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said she is disappointed with the decision and would argue against parole in some cases.
"We are disappointed that the Supreme Judicial Court has gone beyond the ruling of the United States Supreme Court by prohibiting a life without parole sentence from ever being imposed in a first-degree murder case where the defendant was under 18 years of age when he killed his victim, and further declaring that, in most cases the only sentence available to the judge is a 15-year parole-eligible life sentence for this most serious of all criminal offenses,'' Ryan said in a statement.
She added, "This ruling erases the important distinction between first- and second-degree murder, and places youth above all other circumstances of a premeditated and/or extremely atrocious or cruel murder of the victim.''
Under the current law, anyone convicted of second-degree murder is eligible for parole after 15 years. The state Parole Board decides who gets paroled after a hearing in which the inmate, the district attorney's office, and the victim's family are allowed to speak in favor or against parole. If parole is rejected, the inmate can reapply every five years.
While he doubts LaPlante will ever get paroled, Barton said forcing families to relive that pain every five years during a parole hearing is a "terrible, terrible thing. It's like going to the graveyard and digging up the bones."
Former Middlesex DA and state Attorney General Thomas Reilly, who prosecuted LaPlante, agrees.
"It makes no sense given the sheer breadth of its impact,'' Reilly said of the SJC's ruling.
"My heart goes out to the victims, families and loved ones who are impacted by this decision. For them, the nightmare continues,'' he said.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.