SJC ruling could give more convicted killers chance for parole

BOSTON — The state’s highest court issued a ruling that could result in fewer life sentences without parole for convicted killers.

In a unanimous decision, the SJC found that juries should not solely consider whether a murder victim suffered before death but must also consider the defendant’s criminal intent, before deciding if the murder was an act of “extreme atrocity or cruelty,” one of the required elements for a first-degree murder conviction.

First-degree murder carries a mandatory life-no-parole sentence in Massachusetts. A person convicted of second-degree murder is eligible for parole.

The SJC bases its ruling on the 2012 murder of Stephen Perez in Boston’s Theatre District.

Peter Castillo was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting Perez in the back during a fight. The High Court found that the jury should not have considered Perez’s suffering before it convicted Castillo. The decision reduced Castillo’s first-degree murder conviction to second-degree murder, making him parole eligible.

Boston Defense Attorney Brad Bailey called the decision a much-needed line drawn between first and second-degree murder, that’s been needed for years.

“I’ve seen this as a flaw. I’ve seen this as sort of a gray area. I’ve seen how easy it is for prosecutors to ratchet this up to a first-degree murder category with very little showing, or proof, to establish the loose concept of extreme atrocity and cruelty,” Bailey told me.

Going forward, the SJC found that for juries to find “extreme atrocity or cruelty,” one of the standards need for first-degree murder, juries must find the defendant was indifferent or took pleasure in the victim’s suffering, that the killing prolonged the victim’s prolonged conscious suffering, or that the means of killing was excessive.

Essex County DA Jonathan Blodgett took aim at the SJC decision, telling Boston 25 News in a statement:

“This decision is part of a troubling trend of diminishing and minimizing the crime victim. Homicide victims literally have no voice.”

The SJC’s decision applies to all future Massachusetts homicide trials.