Will Gregory Diatchenko Get a Second Chance?

Sentenced to first-degree life as a juvenile, Diatchenko went before the Massachusetts Parole Board last week to petition for parole. Will he win his freedom?

“I am here before you today to say that I am truly sorry. … I am no longer the 17-year-old punk kid that I was so long ago.”

So began Gregory Diatchenko on September 30 in his initial hearing before the Massachusetts Parole Board, reading a statement where he affirmed his remorse, transformation, and criminal responsibility. Sitting at a table flanked by attorneys from the Committee for Public Counsel Services, he sounded as if he could be many of the 63 Massachusetts prisoners who received first-degree life sentences for committing murders when they were younger than 18, but now could be eligible for parole based on recent high court rulings.

But Diatchenko is hardly a generic candidate. “What speaks volumes is the fact that he became who he is today without the hope of release,” Diatchenko’s case worker Jessica Edwards said at the hearing. Now, she—and many others—are wondering: Will this speak volumes to the Parole Board?

Diatchenko joins the other six first-degree lifers who have come before the Parole Board this year for a shot at parole—also called “early release”—where one seeks and must earn the opportunity to serve the rest of their sentence in the community with supervision and support. So far, the Board has granted parole to three of these men: Frederick Christian, Joseph Donovan, and Anthony Rolon. Each has various conditions to meet before release. The Board has not yet posted decisions on the three others who have come before them.

Diatchenko is unique in another significant way. He is the named defendant in the landmark “Diatchenko Decision.” First, in Miller v. Alabama in 2012, the US Supreme Court cited the developmental differences of teens and said that youth could no longer be automatically sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole. Then, in 2013, in Diatchenko v. District Attorney, the state’s highest court declared it unconstitutional to lock up teens for life and declared the Miller decision retroactive. That meant those 63 incarcerated were now eligible for parole if they had served 15 years.

Leg chained and cuffed before that day’s six-member Board, Diatchenko has served nearly 34 years in prison. He’s 50 years old, which is considered borderline elderly in prison terms. Still, he knows he has no guarantees. The Board, by statute, must decide if he is no longer a risk to reoffend and no longer a threat to the community. They must take into account many factors such as his institutional record, his home plan, and the fact that he committed his crime as a juvenile. The vote must be two-thirds of members present to grant parole.

Diatchenko’s murder was brutal. On May 9, 1981, in his own words, he said he “viciously” attacked Thomas Wharf, a 55-year-old man. “I was sick and tired of being propositioned by men,” Diatchenko said. He stabbed Wharf nine times, and “selfishly” stole Wharf’s wallet from his pocket. “I was lost, drunk, high every day,” he said. “I hated everything that was going on in my life…It wasn’t resonating with me.”

Diatchenko talked about how he began to change behind bars. At M.C.I. Cedar Junction, at the time called “Walpole,” where he went first, he was getting in trouble constantly, smoking weed and trying to be a tough guy by refusing to follow the rules. He told a story of how an officer pulled him aside and said “Greg, you’re a better person than this. This is not a place you want to be.” Diatchenko took his words to heart, and “shut [his] mouth.”

From then on, things started to change. He was transferred to M.C.I. Norfolk, a much less violent prison, where he has spent 29 1/2 years, learned the trade of plumbing, and began to teach others. He became a Buddhist and started practicing mediation twice a day, and enrolled in as many programs as he could, including Anger Management, AA, and Emotional Awareness. He earned his B.A. from Boston University, which took him 7 years, and graduated with honors.

So will these changes be enough to earn him parole? His mother Benita Diatchencko, 71, who lost two of her children to tragedy, prays that she will get a chance “to have time with her remaining son.” No one from the Wharf family attended the hearing. But John Zanini, the Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney, testified that District Attorney Dan Conley did not want Diatchenko released. “No doubt Diatchenko has reformed himself,” he said, “but can he be safely released into the community? Did he enjoy inflicting pain? Has he overcome the rage?”

Observing the Gregory Diatchenko who presented himself in a crisp white shirt at the Parole Board for almost three hours, it seems to be that yes, he’s overcome the rage. But it is still too early to see a pattern in the Parole Board’s response to juvenile lifers. One thing is certain: with 34 years under his belt, Diatchenko has shown that he has the patience to wait for the decision.