Inmates Sentenced to Life at 17 Get First Chance at Parole

Image: People walk on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that judges must take the age of juveniles and other factors into consideration before imposing life without parole on young offenders. Jacquelyn Martin / AP file

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A pair of Massachusetts inmates serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed as teenagers two decades ago got their first chance at parole Thursday, in test cases that advocates hope is part of a nationwide move to reexamine harsh sentences for young offenders.

Neither Joseph Donovan, now 38, nor Frederick Christian, 37, physically committed the murders for which they were jailed but both were involved in the robberies that let to the the killings.

They have been behind bars since they were 17.

"I know in the past, I've been bad and I've caused a lot of pain. It is my earnest hope that this board can see that I've grown out of the ignorance of my youth into a thoughtful man who is not a danger to society, but hopefully one day will be a benefit to it," Donovan said at his hearing, which was broadcast by NBC affiliate NECN.

Joseph Donovan, 38, who was sentenced to life in prison for felony murder for his participation in a 1992 robbery of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who died of stab wounds, listens during a hearing before the state's parole board, Thursday in Natick, Mass. Donovan, who was convicted at 17 but was not the killer, was appealing for a release after Massachusetts' highest court struck down mandatory life sentences for juveniles in December.Wendy Maeda / The Boston Globe / Pool via AP

Donovan and Christian are the first of the state’s 63 inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles to be granted a parole hearing since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in December that lifelong imprisonment for juveniles is a cruel and unusual punishment.

That decision followed a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case that outlawed such mandatory life sentences. The Miller v. Alabama case did not abolish juvenile life sentencing but rather gives judges an opportunity to consider mitigating factors on a case-by-case basis.

But not all states have moved to apply that Supreme Court decision to inmates already serving life sentences. Courts in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Minnesota ruled that the earlier life-without-parole juvenile cases would not be reviewed.

“A sentence that was unconstitutional today is similarly unconstitutional even if it was imposed a decade or two decades ago,” Emily Keller, a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, told NBCNews. “The justice of a sentence shouldn’t depend on the date the sentence was imposed.”

Donovan was convicted of first-degree murder for his role in a robbery that turned deadly in Cambridge on Sept. 18, 1992. Although Donovan punched the victim, his 15-year-old accomplice actually stabbed and killed him.

The 15-year-old, Shon McHugh, was charged as a juvenile and served just 11 years in prison.

Christian was convicted for his role in the fatal shooting of two men and the wounding of a third during a May 25, 1994 robbery in Brockton, although he didn’t pull the trigger.

A decision on whether to grant the two men parole could take months. If granted parole, the men would be moved to a minimum security prison. It could take up to two years until they are eligible for release.

The U.S. is believed to be the only country in the world that allows juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life without parole. About 2,500 inmates are serving this sentence nationally.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report