Joan Vennochi

A parole bill that deserves a vote

Sisters, from left, Heidi Lyn, Jodi, and Melissa Gosule a year before Melissa was murdered by a man with a lengthy criminal record. Sisters, from left, Heidi Lyn, Jodi, and Melissa Gosule a year before Melissa was murdered by a man with a lengthy criminal record. (File 1998/The Boston Globe)
By Joan Vennochi
January 6, 2011

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LES GOSULE deserves more than the misty eyes and comforting back pats that his daughter’s murder always elicits from Beacon Hill lawmakers.

He deserves a full, honest debate — and an up or down vote — on “Melissa’s Bill,’’ a proposal first filed more than a decade ago in memory of Melissa Gosule. In 1999, the then-27-year-old teacher was murdered by a man who had served less than two years in prison despite a lengthy criminal record.

The bill as currently drafted calls for the maximum punishment available under law to be imposed on a defendant’s third Superior Court felony conviction or on a third conviction on a felony punishable by more than 10 years in prison. It also removes parole eligibility for repeat offenders convicted under it.

Lawmakers have never debated it, or voted on it. Instead, for years, it languished before the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee. That’s where it was on Tuesday, the last day of the current session.

That’s wrong, whether you support or oppose it. This legislative dead-end helps explain why policy in Massachusetts is so often a kneejerk response to the tragedy of the moment, whether it comes via drunk driving, bullying, or a parolee gone wild.

A new tragedy — the shooting death of a Woburn police officer — is renewing the push for Melissa’s Bill. The officer, John Maguire, was allegedly killed by Dominic Cinelli, who was granted parole despite three life sentences. Cinelli died in a police shoot-out.

The state Parole Board’s unanimous decision to free Cinelli triggered an investigation that addresses this issue: Did the Parole Board follow its own rules in freeing Cinelli? It also raises another one: Should those rules be changed?

On Tuesday, Gosule was surrounded by a dozen Republican lawmakers and one Democrat — Representative James Dwyer of Woburn — who see Melissa’s Bill as one solution to the problem created by repeat offenders who are unleashed upon the public.

Middlesex County District Attorney Gerald Leone — another Democrat — supports Melissa’s Bill and has worked on tweaking it to make it more palatable to opponents. “In this state, defendants’ rights trump victims’ and community rights. I’m not saying it should work the other way, but I’m saying the playing field should be leveled,’’ Leone told the State House News Service.

Defense lawyers and criminal justice advocates argue that Melissa’s Bill replaces flexibility with a strict, unyielding formula: Three felony convictions, no parole. Lock the jail cell, throw away the key and the world supposedly becomes a safer place.

“Any bill named after an individual, particularly an individual victim, must be scrutinized with extreme care and approached with utmost caution, because it means that the statute has arisen in the course of a political and public hysteria,’’ warns veteran defense attorney Harvey Silverglate.

Political and public hysteria rule once again. When it comes to criminal justice, Massachusetts looks reactive, not proactive.

But this time, outrage over a police officer’s death may finally force lawmakers to do more than duck. This week, Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, the Chelsea Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said all bills referred to it will receive “a full and thorough review, including a public hearing.’’

Parole is a carrot — the offer of freedom in exchange for good behavior in prison — and a cost-cutter — a way to pare down the public expense of housing criminals for life. Changing the rules about who qualifies for it requires serious thought about what that means to the system.

Melissa’s Bill should be carefully scrutinized, at a time and place where everyone with a vested interest can hear the arguments, pro and con.

Letting the proposal die in committee is the coward’s way out. It deserves a vote and those lawmakers who don’t support it should have the decency to look into the eyes of relatives left behind and tell them why.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at