Diatchenko v. Dist. Att’y for Suffolk Dist.




Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Citation and Year

1 N.E.3d 270 (Mass. 2013)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

MASS. CONST. Pt. 1, Art. XXVI (“cruel or unusual punishments”)

Nature of Case

Gregory Diatchenko was convicted of first degree murder and given a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility for a crime committed when he was 17 years old. Thirty years later, after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama and banned all mandatory youth LWOP, Diatchenko challenged his sentence on post-conviction review. He argued that Miller was retroactive and that the Massachusetts’ state ban on “cruel or unusual” punishments, found in the state Declaration of Rights, bars all youth life without parole sentences, even when imposed as a discretionary matter.


The Massachusetts’ Declaration of Rights prohibition on “cruel or unusual” punishments bans on all sentences of life without the possibility of parole for youth under age 18.


First, the court noted its “inherent authority ‘to interpret [s]tate constitutional provisions to accord greater protection to individual rights than do similar provisions of the United States Constitution.” The court then explained that the same advancements in neuroscience and psychology that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller shows how all youth LWOP sentences are unconstitutionally cruel.

The court essentially reasoned that Miller’s direction to trial courts to consider the mitigating attributes of youth before deciding which young people deserved to die in prison was a hopeless and irrational endeavor—that sentencing courts could never make that determination with a constitutionally acceptable degree of accuracy. “Given current scientific research on adolescent brain development, and the myriad significant ways that this development impacts a juvenile’s personality and behavior,” the court said, “a conclusive showing of traits such as an ‘irretrievably depraved character,’ can never be made, with integrity, by the Commonwealth at an individualized hearing to determine whether a sentence of life without parole should be imposed on a juvenile homicide offender.”

Put another way, the court explained that the “penological justifications for imposing life in prison without the possibility of parole—incapacitation, retribution, and deterrence— reflect the ideas that certain offenders should be imprisoned permanently because they have committed the most serious crimes, and they pose an ongoing and lasting danger to society.” But “the distinctive attributes of juvenile offenders render such justifications suspect.”