From Africa to Baltimore: The long path to education for a Hopkins star

Efforts to reconsider life sentences for juveniles gain momentum in Maryland

Do Maryland teens sentenced to life in prison deserve a second chance?

On a January day in 2005, Matthew McCullough stood at the defense table in a crowded Towson courtroom. The 18-year-old was facing a judge for his role in a shooting outside Randallstown High School — an act of violence that left the suburbs shaken and another teen paralyzed.

William "Tipper" Thomas III, also 18, watched from his wheelchair, where doctors had told him he would remain for the rest of his life.

The sentence: one hundred years.

Today public defenders in Maryland are arguing that McCullough and others who were sentenced as adults for crimes committed when they were juveniles should have another day in court — and another chance at a shorter sentence. The Maryland Office of the Public Defender has filed about a dozen motions statewide, including in cases of rape and murder, arguing that lengthy sentences for juveniles that amount to life terms are "constitutionally suspect" and "fundamentally unfair."

They point to a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings — the latest in January — that found children have special legal protections against extraordinarily long sentences and that mandatory life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional. Maryland public defenders also say that many prisoners who were sentenced as teens have shown they have changed.

"We're punishing that 50- or 60-year-old for what that 15- or 16-year-old did, and they're really two different people," says James Johnston, director of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender's Youth Resentencing Project.

But the legal efforts are dredging up horrific memories for victims and families, who believed the conclusion of their cases assured them some finality. And prosecutors say that in some cases, the heinous nature of a crime calls for the most severe sentence available.

Thomas believes McCullough's original sentence was justified. Witnesses had testified for three hours about the impact of the shooting and the punishment McCullough should face before Judge Patrick Cavanaugh handed down the maximum sentence — 25 years for each of the four boys hurt in the shooting.

Now a 29-year-old engineer, Thomas says he had dreamed of playing football for Morgan State University since he was a little boy. He maintains that McCullough should remain in prison as long as he himself is in his wheelchair.

"Is the Maryland public defender's office going to get me out of this chair?" he asked.

McCullough's case is one of dozens that public defenders in Maryland are evaluating. The office is filing legal motions arguing that lengthy sentences for juveniles tried as adults should be reviewed.

Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland sued the state in federal court, arguing that the state's parole system for juvenile lifers is unconstitutional because none have been paroled in decades.

Such efforts are offering hope to inmates and their families, who thought they'd never be released.

McCullough's family members said they were shocked when the sentence was handed down that day in 2005. He wouldn't be eligible for parole until he was 68 years old. Some expected his mother, Fannie, to faint in the courtroom, but she felt God holding her up.

"He is no monster," she says of her son, who was 17 at the time of the shooting. He's now incarcerated in Hagerstown. "He was a kid. ... When you that young, you need another chance."

Dreams shattered

It was a week before prom when crowds of kids left the gym at Randallstown High in the afternoon of Friday, May 7, 2004. Nearby, the Randallstown Rams baseball team was playing a home game.

Then-Del. Bobby Zirkin, now a state senator, had organized a basketball game, an annual charity event to raise money for $500 college scholarships for kids at the high school. Zirkin and other local politicians played a team of faculty members.

Thomas was a senior who had been accepted to Morgan State, where he had long dreamed of being a football player like his dad, William Thomas Jr. He had lived across the street from the campus as a young boy. At Randallstown, he was a wide receiver for the Rams. Now he was looking forward to summer workouts with the college team.

McCullough was struggling at the high school of 1,500 students, according to family members. He had transferred there in the middle of the school year when he moved from Owings Mills. His father had died of kidney disease in 2003. He also had recently lost his uncle.

"He didn't grieve at all," says his mother. "He never let it out."

According to testimony at the trial, a dispute between McCullough and a football player was brewing in the days before the shooting. The boys had been told by school administrators to stay home that day to "cool down." But McCullough came to the school with a group of young men. A fistfight broke out, witnesses said.

And then, bursts of gunfire.

About 100 kids scattered on the parking lot. Thomas reached to help a girl who had fallen. He felt the first bullet sear his neck. Then the numbness.

The next week, a doctor would tell Thomas he would not walk again. Bullets hit his neck and back, piercing his lung.

Paralyzed in his lower body, Thomas was the most seriously wounded of the four teenagers. Authorities said none of the victims were the intended target.

Prosecutors said Tyrone Devon "Fat Boy" Brown, then 23, fired the first shots and then passed the handgun to McCullough, who they said continued shooting.

During his trial, defense lawyers raised questions about whether McCullough actually shot anyone. A police detective testified that at least three of the four injured students were likely shot by Brown.

Brown later pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree murder and a handgun charge, admitting he fired at students. Cavanaugh sentenced him to 50 years. He remains incarcerated.

Jurors acquitted McCullough of the most serious charges of attempted first-degree murder. But at sentencing, Cavanaugh called him "a suburban terrorist." The judge went far beyond state sentencing guidelines, which called for five to 10 years for each count of assault.

Thomas believes Cavanaugh was correct in his assessment of McCullough. The fear that tore through the crowds of kids that day rippled far beyond the parking lot, he says — each person affected by the trauma in their own way.

Fannie McCullough says she still can't see why her son received the longer sentence.

"I don't understand the system," she says. "It just doesn't make sense."

His godmother, Enga Mack, says she has seen tremendous growth in him since he was first incarcerated.

"Matthew is very sorry, and his family is very sorry for what happened on that day," she says. "But he wants to have an opportunity to show that he's learned, that he's a better person, that he's able to give back."

'Superpredators'

In the midst of the crime wave of the 1990s, some criminologists spoke of the juvenile "superpredator."

"That's really when this idea came about — that there was these children that were supposedly jobless, fatherless and godless," says Nikola Nable-Juris, policy counsel for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

State legislators across the country responded with tough-on-crime laws that made it easier to try and sentence teens as adults, she said.

Now, developments in brain science have changed how some see teenage behavior. And advocates say black youth have been disproportionately sentenced to life.

Maryland is tied with Alabama in leading the nation in the proportion of juvenile lifers who are black — 84 percent are black, while only 30 percent of the state's population is, according to a 2015 report by the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative and the ACLU of Maryland.

States across the country are rethinking these sentences. In March, Utah became the 16th state to ban life without parole for juveniles, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. Five more states ban it in most circumstances.

Failed legislation in the Maryland General Assembly this year would have eliminated life without parole for juveniles. Another unsuccessful bill would have given some the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed after 15 years.

A series of Supreme Court decisions have found that children are "constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability," as some justices put it. Most recently, in a January ruling on the case Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court gave inmates with mandatory sentences of life without parole a chance to have their sentences reviewed if they were juveniles when they committed the crime.

The case focused on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, which Maryland does not have. But the public defender's office says, taken together, these rulings over the past decade have changed the legal landscape — and that hundreds of defendants in the state now deserve another day in court so a judge can reconsider their sentences.

While only 16 people in Maryland are serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, more than 200 others in Maryland are facing what public defenders say is the equivalent of life sentences.

"If these sentences are viewed as de facto life without parole, then Maryland has one of the largest [juvenile] life-without-parole populations in the country," Johnston says.

The idea that the state's parole structure has resulted in "de facto life without parole" is the crux of a new lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Maryland. Filed on behalf the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, a Baltimore-based prisoners' rights organization, and three men now in their 50s who were sentenced to life for crimes committed as teens, the lawsuit contends that the state has "a system of parole in name only" because so few are paroled.

ACLU attorneys argue that these prisoners have no meaningful opportunity for release as required by the Supreme Court decisions. Over the past two decades, there have been more than 2,000 prisoners serving parole-eligible life sentences in Maryland, including those sentenced as juveniles, but only one has been released, according to the lawsuit.

Corrections officials, in responding to the ACLU lawsuit, have said they would review juvenile cases.

In a statement to The Baltimore Sun released through Johnston, his attorney, McCullough says the Supreme Court rulings have given him hope.

"After being in prison for many years, people evolve into being different and often better, more mature people, and I understand now much better the impact the shooting had on everyone involved, including the victims and my family," he said. "Your outlook on life broadens with age."

Jody Robinson, president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, says the court decisions have put survivors across the country in a painful position.

Her brother, 28-year-old Jimmy Cotaling, was murdered in 1990 by a 16-year-old girl and her 20-year-old boyfriend.

"The reality of going back to court again is very devastating," she said. "It rips open old wounds."

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger says severe sentences are warranted in certain cases, even when the defendants are juveniles.

"There are some juveniles that commit crimes that are so bad, life without parole has to happen," he said.

He said his office would oppose the motions filed by the public defender's office. He says the Supreme Court decisions only applied to mandatory sentences of life without parole, while judges in these cases used their discretion to impose sentences.

Some question whether a child who commits such a heinous crime can ever be rehabilitated.

"They have it in them to take a life," Robinson says. "I don't think that prison is going to fix that wiring. I don't even think counseling is going to fix that wiring. And when they get out, what is going to be the trigger, and who is going to be the next victim?"

'Not over'

Thomas never played football at Morgan State, but he graduated in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in engineering. He wakes at 3 a.m., reporting to work at 5 a.m. at Northrop Grumman Corp. He fills his evenings with activities at church, the gym, and in the community. He founded the TIPPER Foundation to help survivors of trauma. He mentors youth in Baltimore and advocates for people with disabilities.

"My sole purpose back then was simply playing football," he says of his life before the shooting. "I think God designed this for me to see the bigger picture."

He believes in second chances, but not for violent crimes.

"He's the reason I'm in this chair," he says of McCullough.

Thomas said he misses dancing most of all.

Fannie McCullough speaks to her son each morning. She visits twice a month. She still feels God holding her up, the way she did in the courtroom that day in 2005.

"It's not over till God says it's over," she says.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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