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Daniel LaPlante, Townsend Triple Murderer, Seeks Earlier Parole Eligibility

March 5, 2019
LaPlante during his arraigment in 1987, left, and in front of a Middlesex Superior Court judge in 2017. (AP PHOTO, left, and SUN FILE PHOTO) Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

BOSTON -- Priscilla Gustafson’s relatives and friends yet again found themselves in court Tuesday, reliving the horror of the 1987 triple murder that destroyed the Townsend family as convicted killer Daniel LaPlante once more sought an earlier parole eligibility date.

The triple murderer’s appeal went in front of the state Supreme Judicial Court Tuesday morning in Boston’s John Adams Courthouse.

Attorney Merritt Schnipper, representing LaPlante, emphasized during oral arguments Tuesday that a 45-year sentence for a juvenile homicide offender before parole consideration “does not provide a meaningful opportunity for release.”

Crystal Lee Lyons, Middlesex assistant district attorney, argued that 45 years is reasonable in this case -- adding that LaPlante is not serving the functional equivalent of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

LaPlante was 17 at the time of the triple murder, and is now seeking an earlier parole eligibility date. This request was rejected by a Superior Court judge two years ago.

In 1987, LaPlante murdered Priscilla Gustafson, 33, and her two young children, Abigail, 7, and William, 5. Gustafson was pregnant at the time.

Police found Gustafson in a bedroom with a pillow placed over her head to muffle the sound of the gunshots when LaPlante shot her. Police found Abigail and William drowned in separate bathtubs.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants on Tuesday called the triple murder “abhorrent.”

LaPlante was sentenced in the late 1980s to three consecutive life sentences without parole. The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled a few years ago that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

At a 2017 resentencing hearing, LaPlante’s defense attorney requested that LaPlante go free from jail 30 years after the crime was committed.

Middlesex Superior Court Judge Helene Kazanjian sided with the prosecution, ordering LaPlante to serve the maximum number of years under the law. LaPlante will be eligible for parole after serving 45 years, or in 2032.

On Tuesday, Schnipper representing LaPlante acknowledged the horrific crime. However, he argued that 45 years is too long of a sentence -- not allowing for a meaningful opportunity for release.

The lawyer equated a 45-year sentence for a juvenile to life without parole.

In the landmark state Supreme Judicial Court case regarding juveniles, the court wrote that scientific research shows that lifelong imprisonment for youths is cruel and unusual because their brains are “not fully developed.” The decision was retroactive, meaning prisoners sentenced as juveniles will “at the appropriate time” be afforded a parole hearing.

The Superior Court judge two years ago said that LaPlante’s youth played no role in the murders. LaPlante conducted the murders “deliberately and thoughtfully,” the judge said. A psychiatrist called by the state back then determined that LaPlante had shown no signs of rehabilitation.

Two years ago as a 47-year old, LaPlante was diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder along with a tremendous lack of empathy, Justice Scott Kafker brought up on Tuesday.

Lyons, the assistant district attorney, stressed that LaPlante has already received the full benefit of a resentencing hearing, and he’s certainly “not facing the absolute denial of any possibility of parole.”

“The possibility of receiving parole at age 62 provides the defendant with hope (but not a guarantee) of ‘some years of life outside of prison walls’ with sufficient demonstrated rehabilitation,” she wrote in a brief.

The Supreme Judicial Court did not provide a timeline for when they’ll deliver a decision on LaPlante’s appeal.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.