When Emotion Drives The Law

GOVERNOR PATRICK’S PAROLE REFORM is not the first time Massachusetts and other states have pushed for laws out of emotion or knee-jerk reactions. Sometimes the resulting laws are a boon and the end result is a good one, but sometimes they bring a host of complications and unintended consequences. We compiled some of the most notable pieces of legislation that have occurred both in Massachusetts and across the country in response to emotionally fraught events.

1995, Massachusetts
Janet Downing is brutally murdered by 15-year-old Eddie O’Brien, her son’s best friend. At his trial, O’Brien is deemed beyond rehabilitation within the juvenile system and tried as an adult.

The next year, Massachusetts enacts the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which mandates 14 to 17-year-old youths convicted of first or second degree murder be tried as adults — which can mean life without parole for first degree murderers and parole eligibility only after 15 years for second degree murderers. Massachusetts is one of only two states that will sentence a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder to life without parole.

1993, California
12-year-old Polly Klaas is kidnapped and murdered by parolee Richard Allen Davis, a criminal with multiple prior convictions who had served only a portion of his most recent sentence. Had Davis served the full sentence for his earlier crimes, he would not have been on the streets the day he killed Klaas.

Five months later, California passes the infamous “Three Strikes” law, which requires a minimum of 25 years to life for certain repeat offenders with a third conviction — which ranges from burglary to murder. In one case, a man received a 25-year sentence after stealing three golf clubs from a pro shop. The net effect has included overcrowded prisons, a heavy drain on taxpayer resources, and vehement public backlash (including from Klaas’s own father, who was reported saying, “I’ve had my car broken into and my radio stolen and I’ve had my daughter murdered, and I know the difference.”).

2005, Florida
Nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford is murdered by her neighbor, John Couey, a convicted sex offender.

Drafted just a month after Lunsford’s death, Florida’s “Jessica’s Law requires registered sex offenders to wear GPS tracking devices and re-register with the state at least twice per year; other states followed suite with their own sex offender crackdowns. Harsher restrictions began to appear at multiple levels; Miami-Dade county passed an ordinance in 2005 prohibiting sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any day care facility, park, school or playground. The result? The restrictions led to the informal creation of exiled sex offender colonies, specifically, under the bridge of the Julia Tuttle Causeway. After enormous outcry, many of these restrictions have since been reconsidered.

1974, Massachusetts
William Horton murders 17-year-old Joseph Fournier and is sentenced to life in prison. Thirteen years later in Maryland, having escaped on furlough, Horton commits rape, assault and robbery.

In 1976, then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis vetoed a controversial bill banning furloughs for first-degree murderers, contending that such a move would “cut the heart out of efforts at inmate rehabilitation.” After Horton’s Maryland crimes, Dukakis bowed to public pressure in 1988 and reversed his position, though early research at the time suggested that the Massachusetts furlough program benefited prisoners, reduced recidivism rates, and may even have been among the more successful in the country.

1983, California
Marsy Nicholas, a 23-year-old UC Santa Barbara senior, is stalked and murdered by her former boyfriend, Kerry Conley. A week later, Nicholas’s mother, Marcella Leach, unaware that the accused had been released on bail, runs into Conley at the local grocery store.

Less a kneejerk reaction but still an emotionally motivated piece of legislation, Proposition 9, the Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008 or “Marsy’s Law,” was co-authored and sponsored by Marsy’s brother, Henry Nicholas. It focuses on providing victims greater protection and consideration in proceedings like bail and parole decisions, and increases the maximum interval between parole hearing from five to 15 years. The bill has provoked heavy opposition from those who argue against the risk of infringement on the rights of the accused and convicted. Since Marsy’s law has taken effect, preliminary research indicates the average time between parole hearings in California has nearly doubled.


With additional reporting from Kelsey O’Connor.