Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

The Impact of Mattis on Surviving Families of Homicide Victims

May 17, 2024
| Spring 2024 Vol. 68 #2

by Liam Lowney

The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Mattis, 493 Mass. 216 (2024), raised the minimum age at which a person may be sentenced to life without parole from eighteen to twenty-one years old. This decision is retroactive, meaning that individuals convicted and sentenced for first-degree murder committed years (even decades) ago will become eligible for parole—some immediately and others within a term of years. Such sweeping change has a significant impact on families of homicide victims throughout Massachusetts. Since Mattis, nearly 250 families have been notified that—despite what they had been told at sentencing—the person held responsible in court for the murder of their loved one will now have an opportunity to be free. Notwithstanding the rationale of the Court in reaching its decision, Mattis redefines justice for surviving families of homicide victims.

To understand the significance of the impact of Mattis on homicide survivors, it is important to understand their experience leading up to a criminal conviction and sentence. From the earliest moments after their loved one’s murder, a surviving family’s loss is inextricably linked to the criminal legal system. Families are first notified by law enforcement that their loved one was taken by violence. They are then asked to identify the body of their loved one at the medical examiner’s office. Following this overwhelming and surreal experience, families often meet with police and prosecutors multiple times. Families attend pre-trial hearings, mental health competency or responsibility hearings, and even motion hearings where defense counsel seeks to expose their loved one’s counseling or criminal records.

When first degree murder cases go to trial, surviving family members often attend. They see crime scene photos. They listen to the facts that are permitted to be shared with the jury about a defendant, alongside often personal information shared about their own family member. Their loved ones may be held up as heroes or vilified as part of the case. Either way, the ownership of how their loved one is defined, depicted, and remembered publicly is not theirs.

A family’s attendance at trial can have very real financial and emotional consequences. They must take time off from work or school and find childcare. They spend days and weeks in courthouse hallways and cafeterias, often in proximity to the defendant’s friends and family. They must sit quietly in a courtroom and listen as defense counsel claims that the defendant is not responsible, that the action was the result of something the victim did, or that there was a mitigating or excusable reason for the murder. Family members will often be motivated to subject themselves to this process from a deep feeling of responsibility to their loved one and a very human desire to understand what happened and why. Sadly, whatever answer they receive will not be adequate to explain their loss.

After the trial, jury deliberation, and a verdict of guilty, family members may be asked to give an impact statement at sentencing. This statement is often the only opportunity a family is offered to stand in front of the court, and the defendant, and to speak about their loved one in their own voice.

Throughout this difficult (and lengthy) process—from investigation, to arrest, to prosecution, to sentencing—family members may be told that “justice” is the maximum sentence. Until Mattis, the maximum sentence was life without parole. With that sentence, family members’ connection to the court, the criminal legal system, and the defendant could largely be severed. Family members could leave the criminal legal system behind and focus on learning to live as a new family, attempting to hold on to old memories, while creating new ones absent someone they loved.

Since Mattis, however, for at least 250 families in Massachusetts, justice now means something different. Whether the family agreed with the life-without-parole sentence or not, for the first time in years, maybe even decades, families are being told that the process is not over and that their loved one’s murderer may be eligible for parole. This news can profoundly impact families’ actual or perceived sense of safety. Some survivors may now be asked to participate in re-sentencing hearings at the trial court, and all impacted survivors will need to determine whether they will participate in the parole process and again face the defendant. For older cases, the responsibility to represent the family at parole hearings may have to pass from now-elderly or deceased parents of the victim to their other grown children, many of whom never expected to relive the loss of their sibling in such a public way. Many survivors may also struggle with the reasoning behind Mattis. The Court’s focus on brain science and the ability of the defendant to make different decisions and regain liberty as an adult may be in direct conflict with the reality that their loved one, the homicide victim, will never get the same opportunity.

Given the experience of survivors throughout the criminal process and now post-Mattis, it is imperative that any procedures or policies established to implement Mattis be informed by survivors and their experiences. For example, any process or timeline to determine new sentences or parole eligibility must be established in accordance with the Massachusetts Victim Rights Law, G.L. c. 258B, which affords families the right to be informed, present, and heard in sentencing and parole proceedings, should they choose to do so.

Further, the Mattis decision may inspire legislative leaders to introduce more sweeping sentencing reform proposals for eighteen to twenty-one year olds. As lawmakers begin to consider such proposals—particularly any that would take effect retroactively—it is critical that survivors be provided opportunities to be heard in the policy-making process. Though the Court in Mattis was constrained from weighing the full scope of the public policy implications in its decision, it is incumbent upon the legislature to do just that.

Violent crime and the criminal legal system inherently undermine survivors’ sense of control over the most tragic moments in their lives, and changes to a sentence years, even decades, later only further undermine survivors’ sense of justice. Though each survivor’s journey through the criminal legal system is unique, what is consistent for nearly 250 Massachusetts families in the wake of Mattis, is that now, their journey is no longer complete.

Liam Lowney is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Office of Victim Assistance (MOVA),an independent state agency that strives to advance victim rights by ensuring all victims and survivors of crime across the Commonwealth are supported and empowered through access to high-quality services that are trauma-informed, culturally-responsive, and reflective of diverse communities. MOVA achieves this through survivor-informed work, advocacy for enhanced victim rights and services, partnerships with agencies and individuals, and a commitment to providing funding and services for underserved and marginalized communities.