Those helping the defendants say the people affected by the ruling faced unjust trials and have proved through their behavior in prison that they want to live without violence.

"They are not threats to public safety. They, for the most part, are senior citizens," said Michael Millemann, a law professor who is representing many of the defendants. "They've had exemplary prison records. They've demonstrated by living without violence in prison that they've rejected violence as a way of life."

Millemann said many of the defendants affected by the court decision would have been released on parole after serving about 20 years, but a change in state policy effectively left them ineligible. Many participated in the state's work-release program, which ended in 1993 when a prisoner on work release killed his girlfriend and then himself.

The defendants have detailed release plans that lay out where they will live and how they will be financially supported, Bowman-Rivas said.

Walter Lomax, who was freed in 2006 after spending nearly four decades in prison, also is working with the group assisting the newly released men. Many of the men have turned to him for advice.

Lomax, director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, said many of the prisoners spent decades thinking they would die in prison. The men face a difficult road, but Lomax said it is possible for them to re-enter society.

"It's not going to be easy, but it's going to be doable," Lomax said.

Prisoners set free Thursday

Idris Alaoma

Age: 68

Convicted in 1972 of first-degree murder, robbery with a deadly weapon and a handgun charge

Karriem Saleem El-Amin

Age: 60

Convicted in 1971 of first-degree murder, felony manslaughter, assault with intent to murder and armed robbery

John Wesley Henderson

Age: 57

Convicted in 1979 of first-degree murder and a handgun charge

Zachary McCallister

Age: 55

Convicted in 1975 of first-degree murder and robbery with a deadly weapon

Elmer Skaggs

Age: 68

Convicted in 1974 of first-degree murder, robbery and daytime housebreaking

William Henry Washington

Age: 62

Convicted in 1976 of first-degree murder, a handgun charge and assault with intent to murder