“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
As criminal defense attorneys, we might not always feel this to be true, but this week, as we celebrate Dr. King, it proved true in a landmark decision achieved by one of our faculty members. In Commonwealth v. Sheldon Mattis, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that a sentence of life without parole for people who committed murder at age 18, 19, or 20 violates the state constitution and is thus categorically barred. The decision is retroactive. As a result, over 200 people previously doomed to die in prison will now get a chance to return home. NCDC Faculty and Board Member Paul Rudof was part of the legal team that won this important victory, which could have even broader impact in Massachusetts and around the country for how the criminal legal system treats late adolescents.
Paul first raised this issue back in 2011 in a murder case in which he defended an 18-year-old. He argued then, a year before the Supreme Court struck down mandatory LWOP for juveniles in Miller v. Alabama, that LWOP for his young client was cruel and unusual punishment, given research on adolescent brain development that Paul presented through an expert at trial. Paul’s claim was denied.
Fast forward to 2020. In the case of Sheldon Mattis, another 18-year-old convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to die in prison who argued that his sentence was unconstitutional, the SJC remanded his case to the trial court for the purpose of creating a record of the most up-to-date research on brain development beyond age 17. Paul and his law partner, Ryan Schiff, were then appointed to represent Sheldon, create that record, and litigate the appeal. Over three days in early 2021, Paul and Ryan introduced dozens of scientific studies and presented testimony from multiple experts in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and recidivism analysis, and Paul cross-examined the prosecution’s expert, effectively turning him into a defense witness. From this, the trial court made amazing and indisputable factual findings that late adolescents are like juveniles rather than adults in that they are prone to impulsivity, risk-taking, and peer influence, but also have great capacity for change. Paul and Ryan then wrote their appellate brief, marshalled amicus briefs from retired judges, leading scientists, youth advocacy organizations, and others, and Ryan argued the case before the SJC in February of 2023. And after a very long wait, the Court issued its monumental decision on January 11, 2024.
That arc was long, but it certainly bent toward justice. We congratulate Paul and his legal team for achieving this great win and encourage all of you to use the decision to bend the arc toward more justice for our young clients.
We congratulate Paul and his legal team for achieving this great win and encourage all of you to use the decision to bend the arc toward more justice for our young clients.
You can read more about the case here: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2024/01/17/metro/justice-second-chance/