"April 24, 1953 Janet Ruth Solimene Downing July 23, 1995. Daughter, Mother, Sister, Grandmother, Wife, Friend, and Neighbor The Meaning of Life".
These are the words inscribed on a memorial bench underneath the shadow of an imposing tower on Prospect Hill in Somerville. Here in a lovely park on a hill , next to a giant cascading tree one can reflect on the life of Janet Downing while witnessing breathtaking views of a city below. This is also the proud neighborhood that was once deeply shaken by a terrible crime committed here years ago.
By all accounts Janet was a light in many people's lives and all the things inscribed in the memorial are true.
I recently spoke with Janet's daughter Erin to learn more about Janet's life. I also inquired of her untimely death in a heinous crime. Erin's soft spoken manner and controlled emotion relayed to me in words and feeling the pain long endured by a her and her family.
At the heart of the issue is a recent ruling by the state's highest court released on Christmas Eve without warning to Erin and her family that convicted murderers who committed their crimes as juveniles could be eligible for parole. The SJC had carelessly supported the 2012 ruling of the Supreme Court in a case Alabama vs Miller that a sentence of life without parole may be illegal for juvenile offenders. The 8th amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
By a strange twist of events the SJC had come to the rescue of this beleaguered family in 1997 when on an appeal it reversed the ruling of Somerville District Court Judge Paul P. Heffernan's assertion that Janet's attacker was a good candidate for rehabilitation. The prosecution successfully argued that the manner in which her attacker had committed his crime indicated that he could not be cured. This argument was amply supported by a battery of psychological tests and expert testimony.
Now after all these years perhaps through a form of institutional amnesia the SJC established that former juveniles who committed terrible crimes should be released again into society. At the heart of the SJC's flawed conclusion is a standard of rehabilitation, which though embedded in the Supreme Court ruling was omitted in Massachusetts.
Erin and her family will uphold the beauty of their beloved Janet's memory. And they will once again re-affirm in public that her passing should have least validated the notion that those who take the life of others should never be given a chance to repeat their offense against humanity.
But then again this is Massachusetts and such notions of civility are not universally accepted. Erin and her family thankfully are up to the task to remind those who support this misguided notion that such an injustice is utterly intolerable.