Should those serving life sentences get a review after 25 years? I think so

By Lew Finfer
Special to the Reporter

More than one thousand individuals are serving life sentences in Massachusetts prisons. A bill filed by state Rep. Jay Livingstone of the Back Bay would allow them to get a hearing before the Parole Board after serving 25 years. It would not guarantee that they’d be released, just that they would appear before the board.

The idea was debated at a hearing last Tuesday (Oct. 8) during which scores of people impacted by both violent crime and life sentences spoke up.

Some family members of those who had been murdered by those serving life sentences are adamantly against any chance of release for the killers – ever.  But family members of those serving life sentences are left to wonder: Can a person never be rehabilitated?  Isn’t there a chance that some of these people could live lives that contribute to society and not just die in jail?

How would you feel about this legislation if you had a parent or sibling murdered? How would you feel about it if you had a parent or sibling in prison for life?

Then there are wrongful convictions in which people serve decades in prison only to be exonerated by new evidence. You can’t give them back those years.

Sean Ellis, then 21, was found guilty of the shooting death of Boston Police Det. John Mulligan in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison. When it developed later that the officers who had arrested him were involved in corruption with Mulligan and later pled guilty to the charges, Ellis was released. He was in his early 40s and had served 22 years.

Sean Ellis could not go to the funerals of his dad, aunts, and nephew. He had begun to lose hope. He saw people die in prison. Two close cousins were murdered.

“I wondered how I’d feel about those who did this to them,” Ellis said at last week’s hearing. “But, it’s about hope and redemption. People can be rehabilitated in prison.”

If he had given up on himself — and if he did not have a dedicated lawyer in Rosemary Scapicchio—he’d still be serving a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit while the actual murderer remained free.

On the other hand, the mother of a murder victim testified: “Give them no second chance. Except if our loved ones could come back to life, but they can’t. Stop victimizing families with legislation like this.” Another mother, reflecting on the murder of her son by someone serving life in prison said, “I go to my son’s grave but I can’t kiss him.  He doesn’t know I’m there.”

In his remarks, Raashan Hall of the ACLU said that when people of color get murdered and the people of color who committed the crimes go away for life, the community is losing in two ways. 

My co-worker, Keturah Brewster, has a cousin who committed a murder at 18 and he’s now 35. He misses family funerals too, of course. These families see so much anguish, and they live with it every day.

I understand and empathize with families of victims when they believe that those who murdered their loved one should pay for it with life in jail. But because of my faith in redemption, I believe that the prisoners facing life should get a chance after serving 25 years to make their case that they have been rehabilitated. 

Even though I would be angry and hateful toward anyone who murdered someone in my family, I hope I’d support this kind of chance at parole for the killer. Loved ones lost cannot be brought back to life, but they can be remembered always.

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident and co-director of the Dorchester based Massachusetts Communities Action Network.