Fighting for a Second Chance: Maryland to Hear Cases Claiming Unconstitutionality of State Parole System in Resentencing Juvenile “Lifers”
On October 19, 2017, the Maryland Court of Appeals granted three petitions for writs of certiorari in cases seeking to overturn life without parole sentences dealt to individuals for crimes they committed as juveniles. Petitions for Writ of Certiorari: September Term, 2017, Md. Cts., http://www.courts.state.md.us/coappeals/petitions/201710petitions.html (last visited Jan. 18, 2018). A recent line of United States Supreme Court cases decided within the last decade has forced states to retroactively provide new sentences to juvenile “lifers.” Juliet Linderman, About a Dozen Maryland Life Sentence Prisoners Seek New Terms, U.S. News (July 31, 2017, 10:58 AM), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/maryland/articles/2017-07-31/most-maryland-lifers-sentenced-as-minors-request-new-terms. While some states have already made strides in abiding by these holdings, others, such as Maryland, face much more complex challenges in achieving retroactive resentencing. Id. As a result, these three appellants will argue that Maryland is systematically failing to adhere to the Eighth Amendment as its parole system continually and persistently denies juvenile “lifers” the opportunity for release. See Petitions for Writ of Certiorari: September Term, 2017, supra.
I. UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT CASES
In 2010, the United States Supreme Court determined that juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes are in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74 (2010). The majority in Graham stated that “[a]n offender’s age is relevant to the Eighth Amendment, and criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants’ youthfulness into account at all would be flawed.” Id. at 76. While states are not required to release a juvenile during his or her lifetime, they must provide an opportunity for offenders to obtain parole through demonstrating “maturity and rehabilitation.” Id. at 75.
Only two years later, the Court extended its principles from Graham to mandatory life without parole statutes for juveniles. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 489 (2012). The Court in Miller specified that states should take into account a juvenile defendant’s age and age-related characteristics, such as immaturity and “failure to appreciate risks and consequences” during sentencing. Id. at 477. Failure by a judge or jury to consider these factors before “imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles” constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Id. at 489. The Court then proceeded to establish Miller as the “substantive rule of constitutional law” through Montgomery v. Louisiana, and required states to retroactively apply the rule by, at minimum, offering the possibility of parole to juvenile “lifers.” 136 S. Ct. 718, 736 (2016).
II. MARYLAND’S PAROLE SYSTEM
Currently, Maryland has approximately 271 juvenile “lifers” who may be eligible for parole under Miller and Graham within its prison system. Sharon Cohen & Adam Geller, Parole for Young Lifers Inconsistent Across US, Associated Press (July 31, 2017), https://apnews.com/a592b421f7604e2b88a170b5b438235f/AP-Investigation:-A-patchwork-of-justice-for-juvenile-lifers. Even though these “lifers” should have their sentences reviewed as required by the holdings of Montgomery and Miller, not one “lifer” has been granted parole over the past twenty years. Press Release, Am. Civil Liberties Union of Md., ACLU Sues to Ensure Consideration of Youth Status in Sentencing and Parole (Apr. 6, 2016), http://www.aclu-md.org/press_room/268. This is due in part to Maryland’s sentencing scheme, as judges have discretion with respect to issuing the sentence of life without parole to children. Id. Such discretionary sentences were not ruled unconstitutional in any of the aforementioned Supreme Court decisions. Linderman, supra. This provides valid arguments to prosecutors who seek to keep criminals convicted for homicides as juveniles in prison. See id. Furthermore, when juvenile “lifers” actually reach the parole review stage of the sentencing process, they have consistently been denied parole. Press Release, Am. Civil Liberties Union of Md., supra. Maryland is only one of three states in which the Governor must personally approve parole for “lifers,” and all of the Maryland Governors who have served in the last two decades have declined to do so. High Court Juvenile Lifer Ban Spurs Wider Review of Cases, WTOP (Aug. 2, 2017, 3:57 PM), https://wtop.com/maryland/2017/08/ap-juvenile-life-ruling-affects-some-with-parole-option-2. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland argues that parole for “lifers” in Maryland has essentially become “politicized.” Press Release, Am. Civil Liberties Union of Md., supra.
III. CASES ACCEPTED BY THE MARYLAND COURT OF APPEALS
Although a federal lawsuit is currently ongoing regarding Maryland’s controversial sentencing and parole schemes for juveniles, the highest court in the State seems to want to make their stance clear on the issue. Alison Knezevich, Judge Hears Arguments in Federal Lawsuit on Juvenile Life Sentences, Balt. Sun (Jan. 4, 2017, 8:50 PM), http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/crime/bs-md-juvenile-life-hearing-20170103-story.html; Petitions for Writ of Certiorari: September Term, 2017, supra. Each of the three cases deals with a different aspect of life without parole sentencing for juveniles, essentially allowing the court to apply the principles of the United States Supreme Court cases to Maryland law. Petitions for Writ of Certiorari: September Term, 2017, supra. Bowie v. State, No. 1906, 2017 WL 3446440 (Md. Ct. Spec. App.), cert. granted, 171 A.3d 611 (Md. 2017) (No. 55), will look at the constitutionality of not allowing parole for juvenile “lifers” convicted of non-homicide crimes under the framework of Graham. Petitions for Writ of Certiorari: September Term, 2017, supra. Carter v. State, No. 1150, 2017 WL 3446435 (Md. Ct. Spec. App.), cert. granted, 171 A.3d 611 (Md. 2017) (No. 54), deals with the issue of whether life sentences imposed on juvenile defendants convicted of homicide in Maryland “afford . . . [them] a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” as required by Miller and Montgomery. Petitions for Writ of Certiorari: September Term, 2017, supra. Finally, McCullough v. State, 168 A.3d 1045 (Md. Ct. Spec. App.), cert. granted, 171 A.3d 612 (Md. 2017) (No. 56), addresses juvenile life sentences applied through the aggregation of multiple crimes committed during the same incident. Petitions for Writ of Certiorari: September Term, 2017, supra. In all, these cases may force the Maryland General Assembly to rework the parole system to align it with modern constitutional law.
Should the Court of Appeals find Maryland’s parole system unconstitutional, many juvenile “lifers” may find themselves out of prison, including Lee Malvo, one of the D.C. snipers who at the age of seventeen received life without parole for the 2002 murders. High Court Juvenile Lifer Ban Spurs Wider Review of Cases, supra. A Virginia judge recently threw out Malvo’s sentence for his conviction in the state after finding it unlawful under Miller, but his fate in Maryland has yet to be determined. Id.
*Dominic DiMattia is a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law and serves as a staff editor for Law Review. Dominic is a member of the Royal Graham Shannonhouse III Honor Society and will serve as a Student Attorney in the Tax Clinic during the spring of 2018. Dominic has previously interned for the Honorable Barry G. Williams on the Baltimore City Circuit Court. For the summer of 2018, Dominic will be participating in the Summer Legal Program for the Office of Chief Counsel, Income Tax and Accounting Division at the Internal Revenue Service.