Families rally for, against parole for murderers bill at Statehouse

  • Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston. AP PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/9/2019 10:41:36 PM

BOSTON — In Massachusetts, 1,084 people are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, the mandatory sentence for first degree murder, according to Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts.

With raw emotions, and facing proposed legislation to give first degree murderers parole hearings after 25 years, hundreds of people flooded the Statehouse Tuesday to say why first degree murderers should or shouldn’t be given a chance to get out of prison. Among them were family members of an elderly couple who was murdered in Orange in 2016.

“Almost exactly three years ago today, my mother and stepfather were murdered during a home invasion,” said Kate Koonz, of Orange, speaking against the proposed legislation. “A violent crime in a small community affects not just family members, but everybody who lives there.”

Tuesday, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, made up of members of both houses in the Massachusetts Legislature, held a hearing on both bills titled “An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration,” House No. 3358 and the corresponding Senate No. 826.

The two bills, identical in language, would allow a parole hearing to those convicted of first degree murder after 25 years of incarceration, and then subsequent parole hearings every five years after that.

In Massachusetts, a murder is “first degree” if it is premeditated, extremely cruel or atrocious, or committed during the commission of a separate felony. Currently, first degree murder carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole — Massachusetts’ harshest criminal penalty.

The bills, if passed, would scrap that penalty, and virtually everyone in the state’s prisons would be given an opportunity for parole after 25 years.

Opposition

Some of the people who testified in opposition to the bills Tuesday were from Western Massachusetts, including the families of Thomas Harty, 95, and his wife, Joanna Fisher, 77, who were murdered in a 2016 home invasion in Orange.

“Had the writer of this bill been more accurate, I think it would be titled, ‘An Act to Put Murderers Back on the Street,’” said Donald Harty, son of Thomas Harty.

Harty said the bills, in his opinion inaptly titled, are tantamount to the state legislators abandoning their responsibility to keep the public safe. He described the actions of his father’s convicted killers, Joshua Hart and Brittany Smith, both of Athol, who were 25 and 29 years old at the time of sentencing in 2018, and would be allowed a hearing in 24 years if the bills were passed.

“They stole a blanket from the house (after the home invasion) to have sex in the car after and celebrate their conquest,” said Harty, asking the legislators to “search your souls” before passing a bill that would give such people a chance to be paroled.

Koonz, Fisher’s daughter, noted that even in a small community like Orange, nearly 100 people rallied last Friday in opposition to the bills. The protesters, she said, rallied at an event where state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, appeared. Comerford is a co-sponsor of the Senate-version bill, and has not withdrawn her support. She did meet with the protesters who remained after the event.

“In Orange, a hundred people standing united on an issue is a force that shouldn’t be ignored,” Koonz said.

The Judiciary Committee, chaired by state Rep. Claire D. Cronin, D-Easton, and state Sen. James D. Eldridge, D-Acton, allowed speakers three minutes each to share their opinions on the matter.

The committee has the power to kill the proposed legislation by reporting it “unfavorably” or to report it “favorably,” after which it would begin to move through the legislative process with readings and debates of the bills.

Theresa Titcomb, whose son Albert was murdered in Charlestown in 1994, shot “in the back of the head five times,” also spoke against the bills. If passed, the bills would make her son’s killer eligible for parole now, because they apply retroactively. She described the bills as a gift to murderers.

“What does my son get? What do we get as victims?” she asked. “I don’t get to kiss my son. I go to the cemetery and see stone. He doesn’t know I’m there.”

Elaine Jones was another who brought up murders in Charlestown, including that of Albert Titcomb III and Steven Jones, 21, who was fatally shot in 2013 while trying to break up a fight.

Jones addressed state Rep. Jay Livingstone, D-Boston, who is the main sponsor of the House-version bill and who was present as a member of the Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

“Mr. Livingstone, I implore you to stop victimizing these families,” Jones said.

“I believe this bill should be as dead as the countless victims whose backs it was written on,” she finished, prompting some applause from within the room.

In support

In contrast to those who had lost family members to murder, a sizable amount of people showed up on Beacon Hill to support the bills, some wearing green tags that read, “Parole review for all.”

“It would simply allow people the chance to prove they could be a positive addition upon return to society,” said Livingstone, who noted the bills would offer only a hearing, not a guarantee of parole.

Livingstone said that life without parole sentences render people “incapable of personal redemption,” and giving them a chance at parole would incentivize them to be reformed. He said his intent in filing the bill was to “start a conversation.”

Many of those who spoke in favor of the bills have family members who are incarcerated for first degree murder — and many of them insisted their family members were wrongfully convicted.

“My brother is truly one of those people who was wrongfully convicted. I sat through every one of those trials, and he needs a chance,” said Cindy Alice Hayes, whose brother has been in prison for the last 28 years for being in the “wrong place” while doing drugs, she said.

Others who testified in support of the bills were family members of Mary Todd, who was convicted of first degree murder after her brother was killed in 1988. Todd did not physically stab her brother, but, according to court records, was involved in the “attack” in which her brother died.

Imprisoned in Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Framingham for 30 years now, Todd’s family said she is a pastor and supports other prisoners, having redeemed herself even without the chance of parole.

Others who came to support the bill included members of the American Civil Liberties Union, who stated 52 percent of those in prison without any chance of parole are black.

Darrell Jones, who served 32 years for a murder conviction, but was released in 2017 after it was found he was wrongfully convicted, also testified in favor of the bills. He said he viewed the bills as about “forgiveness.”

“You don’t know the prison system,” he said. “My son was murdered while I was gone. My only brother was murdered while I was gone… We celebrate not having a death penalty in this state, but you put someone in there to die.”

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com




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