Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, et al.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
466 Mass. 655
24 December 2013
Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution (prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments)
Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, Article 26 (prohibition cruel or unusual punishments)
Gregory Diatchenko was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a crime he committed as a 17 year old. In the current case, Diatchenko challenged the constitutionality of his sentence, relying on the US Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Issue and resolution:
Life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders. The Court decided that the Miller decision should be applied retroactively, also holding that mandatory and discretionary life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles violate Article 26 of the Massachusetts’ Declaration of Rights, and remanded the case to the county court to consider Diatchenko’s eligibility for parole.
The Court explained that the Miller decision pronounced a new rule of law. New rules of law do not generally have retroactive application, except in one of two situation - if the rule is substantive or if it requires the observance of procedures that are "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty." The Court decided that the Miller rule was substantive as it addresses a constitutional determination "prohibiting a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense” and, thus, must be applied retroactively to cases under collateral review. Consequently, Diatchenko was entitled to receive consideration for parole, but the life sentence would remain “in full force and effect.”
On 25 July 2014, Massachusetts passed new legislation (Chapter 189 of the Acts of 2014) establishing a three-tiered sentencing system for juveniles convicted of first degree felony murder. The three tiers are as follows:
first degree felony murder with extreme cruelty and atrocity – parole-eligible after a minimum of 30 years;
first degree felony murder with premeditation – parole-eligible after 25-30 years; and
first degree felony murder – parole-eligible after 20-30 years.
However, the new legislation does not apply retroactively and the 60 juveniles sentenced before the implementation of the new system defaulted to a sentence of life with possibility of parole after a minimum of 15 years.
In January 2016, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Miller decision applies retroactively and ordered that anyone serving a mandatory juvenile life without parole sentence is considered for parole.
For more information on the issue of inhuman sentencing of children, including a selection of case law, please see CRIN's 'Inhuman sentencing' campaign.
Link to Full Judgment:
This case summary is provided by the Child Rights International Network for educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.