'No compromise,' Shekarchi says of life sentence for horrific crimes
Although it happened nearly 30 years ago, House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi vividly remembers the terror of the Craig Price murders and he wants to ensure any juvenile convicted of such a heinous crime remains behind bars for life without parole.
“He had a reign of terror in that neighborhood [Buttonwoods],” he said of Price, who was convicted of killing Rebecca Spencer, July 27, 1987 when he was 13 and Joan Heaton and her daughters, Melissa and Jennifer on Sept. 1, 1989 at the age of 15. Price was arrested for the murders a month before he turned 16.
“It’s chilling to think that someone like him could come back to Warwick,” said Shekarchi. He vowed to do everything within his power to kill a bill approved by the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Harold M. Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence) to enable those serving lengthy sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles to be eligible for parole after serving 15 years, effectively eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders and ensuring the state complies with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Under current parole law, there is no distinction between adults and those under 18 convicted in adult court. Typically, those serving life sentences are eligible for parole after 20 to 25 years.
The bill (2017-S 0237A) is aimed at creating more nuanced parole laws that better reflect the differences between juvenile and adult offenders and acknowledging recent Supreme Court decisions. But Shekarchi sees no need for nuances when it comes to “monsters” like Price.
“He slaughtered women and children and went out to a party afterward and didn’t think anything about it,” said Shekarchi.
During the investigation, police learned that Price lingered in the Heaton kitchen to have a sandwich and drink juice after knifing his victims.
Shekarchi has an ally in Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.
In an op-ed appearing in today’s Beacon, Kilmartin writes, the legislation sponsored by Senator Harold Metts, “passed by the Rhode Island State Senate would get rid of the protections the General Assembly sought to create in the event of another Craig Price. The bill, as written, effectively prohibits juveniles from being sentenced to life without parole, no matter how horrific or unimaginable an act they commit, and allows juveniles to seek parole after serving a mere 15 years, no matter the length of their original sentence or severity of their crime.”
In a press release, Metts says, “Justice is not one-size-fits-all. The Supreme Court has recognized that those who commit crimes as juveniles are not the same as adult offenders. Their minds are still developing, and yes, they can be rehabilitated.”
Metts goes on to say the legislation won’t open the prison doors and set anyone free.
“It’s going to give our duly appointed and highly qualified Parole Board a chance to look at individual cases and determine whether someone who committed a serious crime as a child should still be in jail or whether he or she has truly rehabilitated and is deserving of a chance to be a part of society for the first time in their adult life,” he said.
The bill was influenced by four U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the last 17 years grounded in adolescent development research, holding that children are “constitutionally different” from adults and should not be subject to the country’s harshest penalties. In the past five years, the number of states that ban life-without-parole sentences for children has nearly quadrupled to a total of 19 and the District of Columbia, including Texas, West Virginia and Arkansas. An additional four states ban life-without-parole sentences for children in most cases.
Warwick senators voted in favor of the Metts bill.
For Jeanine Calkin, the vote wasn’t easy and she said in an email her initial inclination was to vote against it, “especially when thinking about Craig Price, and the horrendous crimes he committed and the impact his crimes had on the community. My heart is with his victims, their families and with all those affected by those senseless and brutal killings. I certainly feel their pain and in no way want to diminish this.”
She continues, “And when considering this law, I must keep in mind that there may be a child who makes a big mistake or does something really stupid, like for example, a kid who falls to peer pressure and has a few drinks, gets behind the wheel of a car and kills someone. Should that child not have a chance to be rehabilitated? I had to think of those parents that know their child made a big mistake, but also know their child can be rehabilitated. That they deserve a second chance, and that given some hope they would be able to realize the mistake they made, atone for it and turn their life around to be a contributing member of society.”
The Campaign for Fair Sentencing for Youth, Rhode Island Parole Board Chairwoman Laura A. Pisaturo, a former Rhode Island Corrections warden, and representatives of the Diocese of Providence and the American Civil Liberties Union all testified in support of the bill. Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski (D-Dist. 2, Providence) is sponsoring companion legislation (2017-H 5183) in the House.
Shekarchi doesn’t believe passage of the Metts’ bill would have any affect on whether Price is released.
“He’s being held on additional crimes,” he said. Metts concurs. He said the bill doesn’t apply to Price who is now being held in a high-security Florida prison for numerous subsequent infractions committed in prison as an adult. The bill also would not prohibit life sentences in the future for youth who commit similarly heinous crimes.
“For someone who commits four murders they shouldn’t be eligible for parole in 15 years,” said Shekarchi.
He is committed to seeing the bill defeated.
“There’s no compromise on this bill whatsoever,” he said.