A Massachusetts man who as a teenager was convicted of raping and murdering a pregnant woman and drowning her two young children in a bathtub asked the state's highest court through a lawyer on Tuesday for a shot at earlier parole.
Daniel LaPlante is serving three consecutive life sentences for the 1987 killings in Townsend. Since each of the sentences include the possibility of parole after 15 years, LaPlante could not seek early release until serving at least 45 years, when he would be 62.
In arguments before the seven-member court, Merritt Schnipper said his client's current sentence conflicts with previous court rulings which say defendants convicted of murder as juveniles should be given a "meaningful" opportunity to re-engage with society.
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"Is 45 years too much to serve for a juvenile homicidal defendant before you are pushing up against the functional equivalent of life without parole?" Schnipper asked the justices. He called for a resentencing that would allow for parole eligibility after 30 to 35 years, offering LaPlante a chance to make a case for release immediately or within a few years.
Crystal Lyons, a prosecutor with the Middlesex District Attorney's office, urged the court to reject any change in LaPlante's sentence, citing the brutality of the crimes.
"This sentence, 45 years before parole eligibility for the separate murders of a pregnant mother and her two young children does not violate proportionality," Lyons said.
Legal experts have said the SJC's ruling, which could come within 130 days, will likely set a precedent for other juvenile offenders, particularly those serving consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentences for multiple homicides.
At his trial, prosecutors said Laplante, a neighbor of the victims, broke into Patricia Gustafson's home intending to burglarize it. When the 33-year-old woman returned home and encountered LaPlante, prosecutors say he tied her to a bed, raped and shot her, then drowned the children, 7-year-old Abigail and 5-year-old William, in a bathtub.
Andrew Gustafson discovered the bodies of his wife and children when he returned home from work.
LaPlante was originally sentenced to life in prison without parole. In 2013, the SJC ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life sentences without parole eligibility, prompting bids for resentencing from dozens of people who committed murders before they were 18.
In 2017, a Superior Court judge turned down a bid to shorten the time before LaPlante was eligible for parole, ruling he committed "three distinct and brutal murders." While LaPlante had made progress in prison, the judge said he continued to display an anti-social personality disorder and lacked empathy.
Relatives of the Gustafson family, some of whom attended Tuesday's hearing, have argued LaPlante should never be allowed to go free.
"It would not be right. It would not be fair. It would not be just and everybody is at risk if he gets out," said Beth Morgan, whose niece and nephew were killed.
The defense attorney noted making someone eligible for parole is no guarantee of eventual freedom.
"We may need to keep him here until he fully serves his sentence but that is a decision under the law that should be made by the parole board," said Schnipper.
The Supreme Judicial Court must still rule on whether LaPlante is eligible for parole. It's unclear when they will make that decision.