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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, a nursery school teacher, in a bedroom with a pillow placed over her head to muffle the sound of the gunshots when LaPlante shot her after raping 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. Judge Robert Barton oversaw the trial in Lowell Superior Court. The retired judge expressed disgust Tuesday at LaPlante’s chance of getting earlier parole eligibility.

Barton sat on the bench from 1978 to 2000, and estimates he oversaw roughly 150 murders during those 22 years.

“This case is one of the few that remains very clear in my mind,” Barton said. “He was the only guy who I said in open court that if I had the power, I would sentence him to death. That pretty much tells you where I stand.”

The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled a few years ago that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court has also subsequently ruled that automatically sentencing juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional.

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

Middlesex Superior Court Judge Helene Kazanjian sided with the prosecution, ordering LaPlante to serve at least 15 years in prison on each of his three life sentences before being eligible for parole. LaPlante will be eligible for parole after serving 45 years in 2032.

On Tuesday, Schnipper 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 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.

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

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.

Staff writer Aaron Curtis contributed to this report.

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