What Happens at a Juvenile Lifer Hearing?
Once a month, in an ordinary brick two-story building off Route 9 in Natick, lines of people lock cell phones in their cars, hang their coats on a rack, pass through a metal detector, and climb the stairs to a hallway that leads to a space the size of a large classroom. They’ve arrived at a juvenile lifer parole hearing, where a prisoner, once sentenced as a teen, must prove that he or she has changed enough to warrant a shot at freedom. These hearings are not easy to attend or take part in—they are inevitably filled with weeping, anger, insensitivity, and sometimes forgiveness.
In Massachusetts, all lifer hearings are open to the public, but those for prisoners who were juveniles at the time of their crime are a relatively new phenomenon, and two are held on one day—one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The state became eligible for these hearings in 2013 after Diatchenko v. District Attorney, when the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional to hand out mandatory life sentences to juveniles who commit murder. That decision also declared retroactive the US Supreme Court ruling that juveniles could no longer be automatically sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. As a result, in Massachusetts, 63 incarcerated adults became eligible for early release after serving at least 15 years, but the majority have served 20 to 30 years.
Families file into the room and go to one side of the aisle or the other: on the left, the loved ones of the petitioner, attorneys, and friends; on the right, the families of the victim, their supporters, and a representative from the district attorney’s office. Sometimes a victim-witness advocate sits with the victim’s family members. Sometimes, a plain-clothes officer takes a seat. There are always guards by the doors. Everyone faces the seven-member Parole Board, who sit in a row at a long table. The petitioner is brought into the room in leg chains and cuffs, and takes a seat in front of the Board, often accompanied by a defense attorney. After everyone who plans to speak is sworn in, the hearing begins. Although the next few hours can decide a person’s fate, during the hearing, the outcome is never clear.
“I am ashamed of who I was and what I did,” said Keyma Mack, 40, at his parole hearing on August 26, 2014, after serving 22 years in prison. Mack was 17 when he shot and killed Christopher Pires in 1992, then fled to Springfield, took an alias, and engaged in more crime until he eventually was arrested. “I had no dreams at all,” he said. His first years at Cedar Junction MCI, which was then called Walpole, were initially chaotic and filled with some racial skirmishes, but when he got to Norfolk-MCI, he became a Muslim and lived a quiet life behind bars for 18 years.
At the hearing, the Board goes through the day of the crime, personal history, and prison record in detail. Their charge is to decide if the person will or will not be a danger to society. Has he changed enough behind bars to be released? Does she have a plan to live on the outside; how will she get work or drug and/or alcohol treatment? Does he have a support network? Questioning can take two hours, but knowing that this is his chance to be heard, the prisoner has prepared for months. Five witnesses for and five against the petitioner have their say.
“It’s hard that my son took a life. I have always wanted to apologize to the Pires family,” said Cheryl Jenkins, Mack’s mother.
Then the family of Pires spoke. “I forgave Keyma. I lost a son and this other family lost a son,” Maria Pires, the victim’s mother, said. “You tore my family apart and you tore your family apart, too. I hope you have peace in your soul, Keyma. That will help you.”
“When you pull out a gun, bullets have no names,” said Paulina Hunter, Pires’s aunt. “We forgive you, Keyma, but we’ll never forget.”
The District Attorney’s office usually sends an assistant DA, who cites reasons why the petitioner should stay behind bars and the heinous nature of the crime. The prisoner gets a chance to have final words. Mack, in his closing statement, said that he sensed the magnitude of what he had done: “My heart has changed.”
Decisions are never rendered at these hearings. Of the 15 men who’ve already appeared before the Board, seven have received positive decisions, meaning they’ll go to a minimum facility for some period of time and complete assigned programs before a supervised and structured release; six have not yet had answers; and two received negative decisions, told to come back and try again—in these cases, after two or five years. However, a lifer can get anywhere from a one to five year setback.
Three months after his hearing, on November 20, Mack received notice—a written document also sent to the victim’s family and posted online for the public to read—that he’d been granted parole in a 6-1 decision. After a year in lower security, completing a high school equivalency test, Mack will have a second chance.
Information about upcoming hearings and the process of parole are posted online at the Massachusetts Parole Board website.