Md. high court to hear arguments on constitutionality of juvenile life sentences

Maryland’s highest court will hear arguments over whether the state’s parole system is unconstitutional for prisoners serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.

The Court of Appeals agreed this month to consider four cases in which men are serving life terms or lengthy sentences, and is scheduled to hear arguments in February. An opinion is expected next summer.

The men were tried and sentenced in adult court.

“We’re looking forward to the opportunity to argue these issues in the Court of Appeals,” said James Johnston, who heads the Youth Resentencing Project at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. “Whatever decision the Court of Appeals reaches in these cases will have an impact far beyond these individual challenges.”

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh’s office, which represents the state in the appeals, declined to comment. In filings submitted to the Court of Appeals, Frosh’s office contended the sentences handed down in these cases were legal.

The U.S. Supreme Court has found that juveniles have constitutional protections against extraordinarily long sentences. A 2010 decision called Graham v. Florida held that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for offenses other than homicide. Then, in 2012, the court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole is unconstitutional for juveniles.

The cases that will be going before Maryland’s high court include that of Matthew Timothy McCullough, who received a 100-year sentence in Baltimore County for his role in a 2004 shooting outside Randallstown High School that left a student paralyzed.

“If you analyze every one of these cases, these juveniles have committed very, very adult crimes,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger.

The 2012 Supreme Court case focused on mandatory life without parole, which Maryland does not have. Shellenberger said judges in these cases had discretion in handing down their sentences, which he called “entirely constitutional.”

In addition to McCullough, the men whose appeals have reached the high court are James E. Bowie, sentenced to life for attempted first-degree murder in Charles County in 1997; Daniel Carter, sentenced to life for first-degree murder in Baltimore in 1999; and Phillip James Clements, who received five life sentences in Prince George’s County in 1989 for first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder.

In taking up the four cases, the Court of Appeals will examine whether Maryland’s parole system gives juveniles a “meaningful opportunity” for release based on maturity and rehabilitation.

Defense attorneys have argued that even those who are sentenced to life with parole in Maryland are effectively serving life without parole because the state doesn’t give them a realistic chance of release.

Maryland’s parole system for juveniles sentenced to life is also the subject of a pending federal lawsuit. The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Maryland on behalf of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, alleges that Maryland’s parole system is unconstitutional for “juvenile lifers.”

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