Bills allowing parole hearings for murderers stir outrage

  • Thomas Harty, 95, and his wife, Joanna Fisher, 77, were murdered by Joshua Hart, 25, and Brittany Smith, 29, during an Oct. 5, 2016 attack in the couple’s 581 East River St. home in Orange. This display was in the courtroom at Franklin County Superior Court. STAFF PHOTO/DAVID MCLELLAN



  • Brittany Smith and her lawyer Mary Ann Stamm in Franklin County Superior Court during Smith’s murder trial on April 30, 2018. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Brittany Smith in Franklin County Superior Court during her murder trial on April 30, 2018. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Joshua Hart in Franklin County Superior Court during his murder trial on April 5, 2018. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Joshua Hart listens to his arrest statements in Franklin County Superior Court on Dec. 13, 2017. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 10/1/2019 11:36:32 PM

ORANGE — After hours upon hours in court, listening to the graphic details of her mother’s murder, reading her victim’s impact statement and seeing her mother’s killers put away for life, Lucinda Costa thought the grueling process was finally over.

But now, it might not be.

Proposed legislation in Massachusetts strives to eliminate life sentences without the possibility of parole — the harshest criminal penalty in the state, and the mandatory sentence for first-degree murder.

Two bills, House No. 3358 and its counterpart, Senate No. 826, are titled “An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration,” and would allow those serving life sentences a parole hearing after 25 years. Rep. Jay Livingstone, D-Boston, is the sponsor of the House bill, and Sen. Joseph Boncore, D-Winthrop, is the lead sponsor of the Senate bill. 

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, is one of the co-sponsors of the Senate bill.

For Costa and her family, the bill’s passage would shatter their confidence in the justice system. There is no true recovery after a family member is murdered, she said, but the idea that those who killed her mother, Joanna Fisher, would never get out at least brought some semblance of an end to the tragic ordeal.

“Most people have a funeral and mourn for a couple months, and that’s the end,” Costa said. “This (the sentencing) was our end. Our end was putting them in jail forever.”

Comerford, however, said Tuesday she will continue to support the bill. She said people like Costa have shared their stories, which “moved (her) deeply.” She said some people who have committed first degree murder should not be paroled, but conceivably some should be.

Costa is planning to be at the Orange Innovation Center on Friday at 4 p.m., where Comerford is expected to appear at an event for local businesses, and said she will hold signs with friends, family and townspeople to raise awareness of the bills. Costa said she feels a duty to her mother, as well as to other families of murder victims and future families of murder victims, to fight the bills.

A violent crime

On Oct. 5, 2016, Joshua Hart and Brittany Smith, both of Athol, broke into the home of Thomas Harty, 95, and his wife, Fisher, 77, at 581 East River St. in Orange.

According to court testimony, Hart and Smith were planning to steal the elderly couple’s money and car to run away together and escape any consequences of their previous crimes. They spied on Harty and Fisher from outside before entering their home and attacking them.

Harty — a World War II veteran who, even at his advanced age, was planning a trip to hike the Grand Canyon — attempted to fight back against the two invaders and protect his wife, who was wheelchair-bound and partially paralyzed. Harty was stabbed multiple times and died in the home, while his wife was thrown to the ground from her wheelchair, stabbed, smothered with a pillow and stood on. Hart and Smith fled, and Fisher died weeks later from her wounds.

Hart was 25 years old and Smith was 29 at the time of their sentencing in 2018, having been convicted of first degree murder by unanimous juries, and given the mandatory life without parole.

While the two bills in question do not guarantee that convicted murderers like Hart and Smith are released, they would give them a chance, a thought Costa said she finds difficult.

“We live in a small town. If these people were let out on the street, they’d probably come back to this community. There’s the possibility I’d see them in the local Walmart or CVS,” Costa said. “I wouldn’t go out.”

Dennis Koonz, Fisher’s son-in-law, is another local who is vehemently against the two bills. He cites the fact that Massachusetts already has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, and that the other roughly 1,100 families of first-degree victims will be affected, as his reasons for opposing the bill.

“The proposed legislation is wrong, not only because it offends and angers murder victims’ families, but S.826 and H.3358 are a danger to public safety,” Koonz said.

“No matter how old the parolee is, it only takes one murderer to kill again to make this legislation a failure,” he added. “In that case, the senators and representatives who vote ‘Yes’ will share responsibility and liability for that victim’s death.”

Kate Koonz, Dennis’ wife and Fisher’s daughter, added, “Just when I feel that I’ve got my feet back on the ground, something else happens to change that. An anniversary, notifications from the prisons, appeals and now these bills. It will never end, but knowing that these cold-hearted killers are behind bars is a comfort. I hope the people who tortured my mother stay there.”

Her brother, Larry Fisher, also said that often the families of first-degree murder victims​​​​​​ suffer from alcoholism and drug abuse, post-traumatic stress and depression, and that the bill ignores those families, instead offering hope to killers.

Justice system

Donald Harty, Thomas Harty’s son, said he has met with Comerford to ask her to withdraw her support for the bill. He is concerned the bill may be passed quietly, with few members of the public learning about it.

“It’s the type of thing that anybody outside family circles seems to know nothing about,” Harty said. “I thought I had a good feeling that the justice system does work.”

Even more disturbing, Harty said, is the thought of having to go in front of a parole board in 25 years — or his children having to — and explain why his father’s killers should stay in prison. He just wants it to be over.

“We sat through two weeks or three weeks watching those two people (Hart and Smith) sneering and smiling like they never did anything wrong, and then they were finally gone,” he added. “I don’t want to hear they learned how to be model citizens or that they found Jesus or something. I don’t want to do it ever, not even in 25 years, or have my children to have to do it in 25 years. They’re not human beings in my mind.”

Moreover, Harty cautioned that the bill, if passed, would enable those with first degree murder convictions from the 1990s and earlier to be immediately eligible for parole because it would be retroactive.

Harty said he will continue to — and hopes others will also — put pressure on legislators not to pass the bills.

Legislators’ support

In April, state Rep. Livingstone told the Boston Herald that the bills do not “mean anyone serving the sentence would get out — it’s not automatic. ... In fact, most people with a serious offense who go before the parole board are not successful, but for those that are deserving of returning to society, they would have this opportunity.”

Comerford echoed that reasoning, and said those who go before a parole board would be treated on a case-by-case basis. She said constituents asked her to support the bill, and she stands by it. She also said it would be unfair to turn on her convictions, despite the emotional pleas of families like the Hartys and Fishers.

“When I looked at it, it made sense,” Comerford said, noting constituents have shown her research suggesting those who have a chance for parole are more likely to be successfully reformed by the justice system than those with no opportunity to get out.

“People who believe they have an opportunity for parole take greater pains to take part in incentives for reform,” Comerford said. “Having that door open could be for someone an incentive to get help.”

According to Comerford, there is no timetable for the bill being brought to the floor and potentially passed. She said there is “nothing currently timely” suggesting the bill will be pushed through the Legislature soon.

First degree murder

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2018 report — which uses data representing the year 2016 — Massachusetts’ incarceration rate for adults is 360 people per 100,000, falling only behind Washington D.C. (320) and Vermont (340), and is less than half of the nationwide rate of 850.

As a country, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Massachusetts’ rate, compared to others documented by the University of London’s World Prison Brief, would be the 40th highest, out of 223 polities, if treated as if it were its own country.

“An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration,” despite its title, explicitly applies to those sentenced for first-degree murder. First-degree murder, in Massachusetts, is distinguished from second-degree murder if it is premeditated, extremely cruel or atrocious, or is committed during the commission of a separate felony.

In the Harty and Fisher double homicide trials of 2018, Hart and Smith were found to have committed premeditated murders that were also extremely cruel or atrocious and while committing another felony (armed robbery). Tried separately, both Hart and Smith received two life sentences, one for each victim. Judge John Agostini, at sentencing, called the acts “evil,” and added the only way they would be released would be an “unlikely” pardon from the governor.

Second-degree murder convictions, though, do come with the possibility of parole.

Another bill, filed by state Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, would give those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole a chance of parole after 35 years. Brownsberger’s bill, however, applies only to future cases, rather than retroactively.

“Should all people convicted of first degree murder be sentenced to life without parole? I think not. ... Not all murders are the same. Some heinous murders reveal a sociopathic disregard for human life and even a joy in torturing others,” Brownsberger wrote on his website. “At the other end of the spectrum are young people who engaged in a joint venture to commit a felony like a robbery and never sought to kill anyone, but who were convicted of first degree murder because someone else in the group killed someone in the course of the crime.”

This story has been updated.

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