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On January 11, 2024, Strehorn, Ryan, & Hoose attorneys Ryan Schiff and Paul Rudof achieved a historic victory in Commonwealth v. Mattis when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) became the first court in the country to ban life without parole (LWOP) sentences for people who committed their crimes at age 18, 19, or 20. The Court found that these sentences were unconstitutional under the Massachusetts Constitution. Over 200 people sentenced to die in prison will now get a chance to be released on parole.

Ryan and Paul fought for this result for over a decade. Paul first raised this issue in 2011 in a murder case in which he defended an 18-year-old. He argued then, a year before the Supreme Court struck down mandatory LWOP for juveniles in Miller v. Alabama, that LWOP for his young client was cruel and unusual punishment, given research on adolescent brain development that Paul presented through an expert at trial. The claim was not successful then, but he did not give up.

Over the ensuing years, Ryan filed multiple amicus briefs in the SJC on the issue. In 2019, Ryan and Paul raised this claim on behalf of a man who had been had been convicted of felony murder when he was 18 and then demonstrated an incredible record of rehabilitation over the next forty-eight years in prison. In the midst of that litigation, the client, who had become a dear friend, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ryan and Paul were able to get him released from prison on medical parole, allowing him to live outside prison for the first time in almost half a century but also putting an end to the constitutional challenge to his sentence.

The next year, Ryan filed an amicus brief with the SJC in the case of Sheldon Mattis, another 18-year-old convicted of first-degree murder who argued that his LWOP sentence was unconstitutional. Rather than ruling on the issue, the SJC remanded Mr. Mattis’s case to the trial court so his lawyers could create a record of the most up-to-date research on brain development beyond age 17.

At that point, Ryan and Paul started representing Mr. Mattis directly. During multiple days of hearings in early 2021, Ryan and Paul introduced dozens of scientific studies and presented testimony from some of the country’s leading experts on neuroscience, developmental psychology, and recidivism, and cross-examined the prosecution’s expert, effectively turning him into a defense witness. From this record, the judge overseeing the case found that late adolescents are like juveniles rather than adults in that they are prone to impulsivity, risk-taking, and peer influence, but also have great capacity for change. The case then headed back to the SJC with the record the Court needed to decide whether these sentences are unconstitutional.

Ryan and Paul spent weeks writing a 72-page brief explaining why LWOP sentences are cruel and unusual punishment when imposed on late adolescents. They also marshalled amicus briefs from retired judges, leading scientists, youth advocacy organizations, and others. In February 2023, Ryan argued the case before the SJC in a courtroom packed with lawyers, family members of people serving LWOP sentences, and advocates for the fair sentencing of youth. . After a nerve-wracking wait of almost a year, the Court issued its monumental decision on January 11, 2024.

Clients reported that cheers rang out through the state’s prisons when news of the decision broke. We are proud to have had this impact on the lives of so many people who had been condemned to die in prison. Our years of hard work were more than rewarded when we were able to meet with clients who, after decades of imprisonment with no hope of release, will now have a chance to give back to their communities outside prison and show that they are so much more than their worst act.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

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