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Commonwealth v. Laplante

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

June 6, 2019


          Heard: March 5, 2019.

         Following review by this court, 416 Mass. 433 (1993), a motion to vacate sentence, filed on June 12, 2015, was heard by Helene Kazanjian, J.

         A request for leave to appeal was allowed by Lowy, J., in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk.

          Merritt Schnipper for the defendant.

          Crystal L. Lyons, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Benjamin H. Keehn & Afton M. Templin, Committee for Public Counsel Services, for Committee for Public Counsel Services & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          LOWY, J.

         At the age of seventeen, the defendant, Daniel J. LaPlante, murdered a thirty-three year old pregnant mother, Priscilla Gustafson, and her two young children, Abigail and William Gustafson. The issue before us is whether the defendant's sentence of three consecutive terms of life imprisonment, with the possibility of parole after forty-five years, constitutes cruel or unusual punishment in violation of art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. Because we conclude that, on the specific facts of this case, the defendant's sentence is within constitutional bounds, we affirm.

         Background. 1. Facts. The facts we recite are drawn from the Superior Court judge's sentencing memorandum, which the parties have designated as their statement of agreed facts:[1]

"[The defendant] carefully planned [two] intrusions into the Gustafson[s'] home; first breaking in on November 16, 1987, and stealing items. While he could have stopped there, he decided to return. He obtained a gun and lied to his brother's friend in order to get bullets. He practiced loading and unloading the guns. On December 1, 1987, [the defendant] broke into the Gustafson[s'] house for the second time, carrying the loaded weapon. When he heard Priscilla Gustafson and her [five year old] son William entering the house, he said that his first thought was to jump out the window. But he decided not to. He confronted them with the gun, brought them to the bedroom, put William in the closet and tied Priscilla to the bed. [The defendant] said that after he tied Priscilla to the bed, his plan was to leave. But once again he decided not to. Instead, he made the decision to rape her. After raping her, he acknowledged that he could have left. Instead, he decided he would kill her. After he killed Priscilla, [the defendant] made the decision to take William into the bathroom and drown him. As he was leaving, he encountered [seven year old] Abigail. He lured her into the bathroom and made the decision to drown her as well. . . . After fleeing the scene, [the defendant] went home, ate and then attended his niece's birthday party as if nothing had happened."

         2. Sentencing and other posttrial proceedings. In 1988, the defendant was convicted of three counts of murder in the first degree and sentenced to three consecutive terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. This court affirmed the convictions after plenary review. Commonwealth v. LaPlante, 416 Mass. 433, 444 (1993).

         In 2012, the United States Supreme Court held that the prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishments" contained in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders.[2] Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 465 (2012) . The following year, this court held that Miller was retroactive to cases on collateral review, and we determined that the protections of art. 2 6 extend beyond the Eighth Amendment protections outlined in Miller, such that art. 26 prohibits the imposition of life sentences without the possibility for parole -- whether such imposition is mandatory or discretionary -- on juvenile offenders. Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 466 Mass. 655, 658-659 (2013) (Diatchenko I), £3.C., 471 Mass. 12 (2015) .

         In a separate opinion issued the same day as Diatchenko I, we noted that, going forward, the contours of a new sentencing scheme for juvenile homicide offenders would be left to the sound discretion of the Legislature. Commonwealth v. Brown, 466 Mass. 676, 691 n.ll (2013), S_.C., 474 Mass. 576 (2016). We emphasized, however, that any constitutional sentencing scheme must "avoid imposing on juvenile defendants any ...

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