Would You Let This Man Go Free?
As a teenager, Greg Diatchenko was convicted of murder and given the mandatory sentence: life without parole. Now science, and the courts, could give him another chance.
Wearing a crisply pressed blue button-down and jeans, Greg Diatchenko could be a suburban dad arriving for a parent-teacher conference. The 50-year-old murderer walks into a sunny conference room at the medium-security state prison in Norfolk, his cheeks freshly shaven, his glasses silver, his eyes blue-green. It’s a warm day in April, and he awkwardly scans to the scrum of people waiting there for him—the prison’s press director, a correctional officer, his lawyer, me—to figure out where to sit. When he shakes my hand, his palms are callused, his fingernails trimmed to the quick. I know he’s nervous, because his lawyer told me. But he just seems thoughtful, reflective, sincere.
Diatchenko’s lawyer has serious reservations about his speaking with a journalist. But Diatchenko hopes his story can help the other 62 Massachusetts inmates who, like him, were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were still too young to vote. His lawyer sits in on our 90-minute conversation, occasionally shutting down certain avenues of questioning, and Diatchenko heeds his advice not to talk about the brutal crime that landed him in here.
He learned to listen to his lawyer the hard way: Thirty-three years ago, as a teenager, Diatchenko took the advice of his drinking buddies instead of his attorney. He’d been caught stabbing a man to death, and in the run-up to his trial, the prosecutor made him an offer: plead guilty to second-degree murder and avoid the almost-certain conviction at trial of first-degree murder. Given the strength of the evidence against him, it was like a gift. But Diatchenko, stupid and 17, turned it down. You can do better than that, his friends told him.
He showed up drunk to his trial with the misguided expectation that his lawyer could get him a lesser sentence. Even now Diatchenko struggles to explain what he was thinking. “I was trying to bide my time,” he says. “By going in and pleaing, I would be sent away right away.” That is, he chose the week of freedom he gained by going to trial—and the infinitesimal odds that he could be acquitted—over the decades he might have been free on parole with a second-degree sentence. He’s not going to make that youthful mistake again.
Because just now, for the first time in his adult life, Diatchenko has a glint of hope for gaining his freedom. In response to an evolving scientific understanding of children and crime, the state Supreme Judicial Court last year in Diatchenko v. District Attorney overturned a long-standing law, finding life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles. Now, one by one, these former teenage criminals have the unexpected opportunity to prove they deserve a second chance.
Diatchenko says he’s changed, that he’s no longer the impulsive and troubled teenager he was, that he’d never hurt anyone again. But whether he—or any of the state’s remaining juvenile lifers—will actually go home is up to the parole board. Which is why Diatchenko’s lawyer is nervous. He doesn’t want his client to say anything that could hurt his chances of being freed. After much reflection Diatchenko decided to speak with me anyway. “The parole board may hold it against me for doing this,” he says, “but there was a lot of negative publicity around the juveniles and this is a good way to show how the juvenile can change for the better.”
Diatchenko can’t sleep lately, excited about the newfound possibility of parole. He has now been locked up almost twice as long as he was free. He has modest dreams: moving into his mother’s tidy Roslindale bungalow, opening a small drain-cleaning business, attending his first Bruins game. “It is up to me to show [the parole board] that I have changed for the better,” he wrote me in a letter, “that I have remorse for what I have done, and that I will live as a law-abiding citizen if given the opportunity.”
Diatchenko’s happy childhood began to unravel when he was 10. He remembers the swing set in the backyard of his family’s house in Sharon, Christmas at his mother’s Latvian Lutheran church, summer afternoons on Lake Massapoag. But his parents’ divorce prompted a series of moves—to Brighton, Norfolk, Brookline, Quincy, Hingham, Jamaica Plain. Sometime during this uprooted period Greg’s sister, Iveta, started using drugs. Though she was only 12 or 13, it got serious fast: Their mother, Benita, was at the police station almost daily. Iveta began to run away from home, eventually moving in and out of DYS custody. Greg alternated between constant worry for his sister and resentment over her broken promises to quit using.
The family spun into chaos. Greg first tried pot at 13. Other drugs quickly followed: cocaine, mescaline, mushrooms. Soon he and his friends were smoking every day, drinking six-packs of Schlitz on the weekends, and dropping tabs of acid into cheap wine. Benita fought with her boyfriend all the time, and in her worry over Iveta, she developed a short fuse with Greg. By 17, he had dropped out of school. He felt adrift, full of anger and frustration. “It was very dysfunctional in my house, so for me [drinking] was an escape,” Greg recalls. “I could numb myself from the arguing.”
Greg’s circumstances were extreme, but his development as a teenager was not: As every parent knows, adolescents are impulsive, self-centered, and thrill-seeking. Neuroscience offers clear reasons why. With increasingly sophisticated technology, scientists can now pinpoint how brain development affects kids’ reasoning—or lack thereof. The limbic area, which controls emotion and responds to excitement and reward, is hyperactive during adolescence. Simultaneously, the prefrontal cortex— responsible for reason, caution, and long-term planning—doesn’t mature until the age of 25.
Recognizing the emerging science that shows a child’s brain is not fully developed by the age of 18, courts are increasingly reluctant to give teenagers sentences that can never be revisited. But the notion that teenagers should not be held fully responsible for their actions doesn’t sit right with everyone. The victim advocacy group National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers takes issue with what one University of Pennsylvania criminology professor has called “brain overclaim syndrome.” As the group writes on its website, “development is not all one thing—it is complex. It is hormonal, sexual, social, cognitive, emotional. Good judgment and good behavior do not come only from the frontal lobe.”
Indeed, other factors—like good parenting and a stable home life—are just as crucial. Greg’s home life was less violent than that of many juvenile lifers, but it was still unstable and unsupervised, awash in drugs and alcohol. Benita worked five or six nights a week as a waitress, so despite her best intentions, she was rarely home to keep tabs on her kids.
On Saturday afternoon, May 9, 1981, Greg was already trashed when he went to meet his friend John Kennedy, 17. The two had a few hours to kill before a party in Mission Hill, so they sat at the Brookline Village T stop and polished off two six-packs and a bottle of Southern Comfort before making their way over to Copley Square to meet friends.
There, they were running to catch a bus when Greg stopped to spray paint graffiti on a nearby wall. Kennedy looked out the back window of the bus as it pulled away, Greg running behind to catch it. Greg was as drunk that night as Kennedy had ever seen him and, Kennedy admits now, in no state to be left alone in the middle of the city. He still remembers the sound of Greg’s fist on the back door of the bus as it drove away.
Alone, Greg wandered for 10 minutes down Boylston Street, to a block where young hustlers would gather outside of the gay bar Skipper’s Lounge. There, Thomas Wharf was cruising for a date in his Cadillac. At 55, Wharf had been divorced for years, and though he kept his sexuality a secret from his family, lately his sons had begun to suspect that he “went both ways.”
Wharf had six adult sons, four of whom went on to follow their father into long-haul trucking. Wharf drove fish from Gloucester to the Midwest and then carried beef back east from Omaha. His son Mark remembers riding in the truck’s passenger seat, his dad teaching him how to steer the 70-foot rig. Thomas Wharf was 5-foot-8 and beefy, with Popeye forearms, a raspy voice, and thick black hair and mustache. “He was the greatest guy in the world,” Mark says.
What Greg Diatchenko was doing at Skipper’s is not clear. Was he hustling? Nothing about his past suggests it, but perhaps he was. A woman in the upstairs apartment testified that she heard him shout, “Give me all your money, you motherfucker.” Was it a drunken mugging gone wrong? His mom says even she doesn’t know what happened: When she asked him about it recently, he said, “Mama, can’t you understand? I’m too ashamed to talk about it.”
And while Diatchenko heeded the advice of his lawyer not to speak about his crime with me, he will have to talk about it in front of the parole board. Until then, here’s what we know from his 1981 trial: Greg Diatchenko stabbed Thomas Wharf nine times in the driver’s seat of Wharf’s car. The wounds were so extensive that a paramedic during the trial described Wharf’s body as “filleted open.” Blood was everywhere—the dashboard, the front seat, the driver’s side, the passenger’s side—and when the paramedics opened the driver’s-side door, more blood poured from Wharf’s chest onto the ground. The jury convicted Diatchenko of first-degree murder with malice aforethought and extreme atrocity and cruelty.
Diatchenko’s impressionable age, unstable home life, and severe alcoholism, his lawyer hoped, might warrant a measure of mercy, and he tried to introduce them as mitigating factors at sentencing. But none of it mattered. The sentence was mandatory.
Until last year, any 14-, 15-, or 16-year-old accused of murder in Massachusetts was tried as an adult and sentenced as an adult. Seventeen-year-olds were tried and sentenced as adults no matter the charge. Anyone convicted of first-degree murder got life without parole. No exceptions. The law was the most severe of any New England state and among the toughest in the country. As a result, by 2009, Massachusetts had four times as many juvenile lifers as all other New England states combined.
As a convicted murderer, Diatchenko was sentenced to serve his time in Walpole, the state’s only maximum-security prison at the time, used to house Massachusetts’ most violent inmates. Diatchenko arrived in prison puffy-eyed and crying. He looked even younger than his 17 years: His hair was blond and thick. His chin and cheeks were smooth. As the prison walls came into view through the windshield of the transport car, Diatchenko thought, This is the end of my life.
Diatchenko murdered Wharf on the eve of the nation’s toughening approach to juvenile crime. For a century, children were tried in juvenile courts and sentenced to juvenile correctional facilities, which held kids for limited periods and focused on treatment and rehabilitation. Then came the 1980s and early ’90s, a violent era, especially among youth: Between the mid-’80s and mid-’90s, the number of homicides by teenagers with guns climbed steadily each year, peaking in 1993 at more than 3,000—three times what the yearly rate had previously been. The Central Park jogger case introduced wilding to the national vocabulary. Amid the crack-cocaine epidemic, the war on drugs ushered in mandatory- minimum sentencing. Teenage homicide rates soon declined and have continued to fall, but sentencing laws were transformed for a generation.
As a young man in his twenties, Greg Diatchenko watched the political climate change from behind prison walls. At first, Massachusetts still offered incentives for inmates to rehabilitate themselves; even lifers could move from maximum- to medium- or minimum- security prisons and participate in work-release programs. It wasn’t unheard of for the governor to commute first-degree life sentences for exemplary prisoners. Then, in 1987, Massachusetts lifer Willie Horton—who walked away from a minimum-security prison while on a weekend furlough—committed a violent assault and rape. After the national, highly politicized backlash over Horton, coupled with the ballooning numbers of inmates serving “tough on crime” sentences, the DOC slashed services available to lifers. They could no longer participate in most vocational or rehabilitation programs. Since they would never get out, the department reasoned, they had a “low need” for programming.
>Massachusetts had long allowed for certain juvenile cases to be “transferred” to adult court, but until the early ’90s, these transfers were rare. In 1996, the legislature passed the most recent law: Anyone 14 and older accused of murder is tried as an adult. No exceptions.
That remained the law until last year. But with Diatchenko, Massachusetts followed the U.S. Supreme Court in an emerging jurisprudence that children are less culpable than adults and easier to rehabilitate. In 2005 the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles. In 2010, it eliminated juvenile life without parole for non-homicide crimes. Then, in 2012, it ruled in Miller v. Alabama that even for homicide crimes, mandatory life without parole sentences were unconstitutional. A kid under 18—even a murderer—is too young to write off entirely, the court said.
“Incorrigibility,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “is inconsistent with youth.”
The court’s reasoning can be hard to square with the reality of a brutal crime. Last year, Massachusetts residents were shocked when Colleen Ritzer, a beloved 24-year-old math teacher, was found dead in the woods behind Danvers High School. Shortly after police arrested her then-14-year-old student Philip Chism for the murder, the Supreme Judicial Court outlawed life without parole for juveniles. If convicted, Chism will face a life sentence. But because of the state court’s ruling in Diatchenko, he’d be eligible for parole after 15 years. Feeling betrayed, Ritzer’s family issued a statement: “There will never be ‘parole’ for our family’s life sentence without Colleen.”
Recently, several victims’ families have worked together to ensure their loved ones’ killers never get out. In February, the family of Beth Brodie, who was 15 when she was beaten to death by a classmate in 1992, held a candlelight vigil to protest parole for her killer. Three months later, Brodie’s family and others delivered a petition with 15,000 signatures to Governor Patrick, urging him to limit the new ruling’s application. “To prepare for a parole hearing every three to five years retraumatizes victims’ families over and over again,” Brodie’s brother Sean Aylward told me.
Until the legislature passes a new law that’s compliant with Miller, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder will serve second-degree sentences: 15 years to life. But whether they get out after 15 years, die in prison, or serve some stretch of years in between hinges on their ability to improve themselves and prove it to the parole board. From 2011 until May of this year, according to Patricia Garin, who tracks parole numbers as a codirector of the Northeastern Prisoners’ Rights Clinic, the board has held hearings for 365 lifers. Twenty-eight went home. Among juvenile second-degree lifers, the number was four.
Mark Wharf, son of Diatchenko’s victim, is grappling with ambivalence over the parole hearing Diatchenko will eventually have. As one of only two of Thomas’s surviving sons, he feels it’s up to him to represent his family. He says he will not attend the hearing. He considered writing a letter but then decided to leave it be. “He’s been in 34 years,” Mark says. “That’s actually a lifetime right there. Maybe he paid his dues. If they give him parole, they give him parole. If they don’t, they don’t.”
The teenage Diatchenko arrived at Walpole scrawny and scared. He cried constantly. Through a family friend, he says, he found a group of guys to keep an eye on him, and he soon learned to project a tough-guy image to fit in. The guards, though, told him that they saw through his posturing. That tough-guy image doesn’t fly here, he recalls them saying. You’re a good kid. If you keep your nose clean and stay out of trouble, you can go to Norfolk or someplace better than this.
He was 21 when he decided to heed their advice. He stopped talking back. He began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and joined the Reach Out program, giving tours to teenagers at risk of ending up in prison. He got his GED, and found it felt good to be back in a classroom; he was proud when his teacher told him his score was the highest in his class. Five months later he was rewarded with a transfer to Norfolk.
There, he joined the Lifers’ Group, and took on several charity projects, including Toys for Tots, building wooden toys for children at area hospitals. He got a job in the plumbing shop and proved a fast learner, unclogging drains, adjusting flushometers, and repairing pipes. “It’s honest work,” he says. After 20 years on the job, he is now the prison’s chief plumber, often called in the middle of the night in an emergency. It feels good, he says, to be “one of the main guys that people look to to keep the institution running.”
If Diatchenko were serving a second-degree sentence, cynical observers might look at all he has accomplished in prison and think, You’re just trying to impress the parole board. But until last year, Diatchenko had no hope of ever getting out. He just did it. “I just knew that even if I never got out, I can still live,” he says. “I said, ‘Man, this is it. This is where I’m going to be. Make the best of it.’”
Diatchenko enrolled in Boston University’s Prison Education Program, where he is “an outstanding student,” as one professor described him in an affidavit: “conscientious, diligent, courteous, focused, and above all, critically engaged and intellectually aware.” He has read Michael Pollan, Aristotle, taken music and sociology and Irish Studies. In June, he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree and a 3.63 GPA.
Almost 10 years ago, a friend brought him to his first meeting of the prison’s Buddhist group. It was unfamiliar at first: chanting in Korean and meditation. But the teachings resonated, and he kept going back.
In 2007, Diatchenko committed to live according to Buddhist principles in a rite called taking the Five Precepts. He meditates every day at sunup and sundown. Buddhism has taught him that “life is being mindful,” he says. “ Everything we do has an effect on other people. When people have contact with me, I want them to come away with something positive.” At his ceremony, he vowed not to take life, not to steal, not to act badly in lust, not to lie, not to drink alcohol. May all my offenses, he chanted, now be totally consumed in an instant, as fire burns dry grass, extinguishing all things until nothing remains.
Greg Diatchenko turned 50 in February. His trim brown hair is gelled and combed back and his smile reveals decades of prison dental care. His eyes cloud pink when I ask him whether he would give himself a second chance if he were a member of Thomas Wharf’s family.
“Believe me, I’ve thought about that a lot over the years,” he says. “It never escapes my mind. When I think about what happ—” He rephrases: “what I’ve done, in my life. And the impact that had on their family….” He’s quiet and searches for words. “There’s nothing I can do to erase what I did. Nothing. And I can say I’m sorry a million times. And I would understand if they didn’t want to hear it. But I’ve made great strides to better myself as a human being.” Diatchenko blinks back tears. “I would hate me,” he practically whispers.
The parole board often focuses on the severity of the crime, as much if not more than they consider the work an inmate has done to better himself in the decades since. Diatchenko knows his odds. But regardless of the outcome of his hearing, “even if I never get out, I’m going to continue to do what I do in here,” he says. “Nothing’s ever going to change that. I’m still going to be part of the Buddhist community. I’m still going to work. I’m still going to get up every day—” his voice shakes, and he takes a deep breath as he continues, “and I’m going to try to help others in here as long as I can. I should have been doing that all my life.”
>Diatchenko will likely appear before the parole board next year.