Five men found guilty of murder walked free Thursday from a Baltimore court after a series of emotional hearings that saw a man break down on the witness stand as he urged a judge not to release a prisoner convicted decades ago in the killing of his father.
Twenty-five prisoners have now struck deals with the Baltimore state's attorney's office after a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling last year called into question the fairness of jury convictions before 1980. Defense lawyers estimate that 200 cases statewide could be affected.
The men emerged from Baltimore Circuit Court just after 4 p.m., shortly after the judge agreed to suspend the rest of their life sentences.
"I'm going to get with my family and get myself a job," said Liston G. Noble, 62, who was convicted in 1976 of acting as a lookout in a robbery that turned deadly. "I'm going to live what's left of my life."
Inside a public defender's office, Noble embraced his son tearfully in the lobby before heading upstairs to change into jeans and a plaid shirt purchased by his sister. For the first time in his life, he used a cellphone, cradling it awkwardly against his ear.
"I don't even know how one works," he said.
As he stepped outside, he stood on the street and marveled at the tall buildings that now crowd St. Paul Place.
Noble was found guilty of murder after prosecutors said he kept watch during a home invasion that ended with Frank David Deickman Jr. shot to death while wrapping Christmas presents.
Sitting in court just feet away from Noble, Deickman's son began to cry as he attempted to address a judge. Brian Deickman was 9 years old when he saw his father killed. He was unable to continue speaking.
"No person, especially a child should have to witness what I saw," said Assistant's State's Attorney Theresa M. Shaffer, reading from a statement Deickman had prepared. "I lost my best friend and my dad that night.
"I feel the sentence handed down was fair and just," Shaffer continued reading. "Dad doesn't get a do-over and neither should Mr. Noble."
Despite the raw emotion from victims in the courtroom, lawyers representing the men have tried to show how much they have changed since their crimes. The state's attorney's office has said it is only considering the release of prisoners who no longer pose a risk to public safety.
Noble has violated prison rules against drugs, alcohol and tobacco a number of times, according to his release agreement, but prosecutors said the incidents did not endanger other inmates or prison staff. He spent a short time on work-release before the option was revoked for people on life sentences.
A number of the men who have been released to date were convicted of murder despite not pulling a trigger or landing a killing blow. Glenn J. Ford, the shooter in Noble's case, was convicted of murder and died in prison in 2002, according to court records. Another man pleaded guilty and received a lesser sentence.
Noble said he felt he had been treated unfairly but understood Deickman's position.
"I kind of somewhat felt his pain as he tried to express his loss," Noble said. "You don't get over things like that."
Whatever the facts of the cases, a decision by the state's highest court found that before 1980 jurors were instructed that they could return guilty verdicts while ignoring the constitutionally protected concepts of reasonable doubt and the presumption of innocence.
The faulty instructions were changed in 1980, but the ruling last year opened the way for the inmates to ask for new trials.
Among the others released Thursday was Eric Lynch, who shot a man in the head at close range with a rifle in 1971 after he lost $4 in a game of craps, and David Cockey, who shot his uncle to death in their kitchen.
Both men declined to comment.
At the public defender's office, James Grayson, who was convicted of murder in 1964, left with his fiancee, whom he said he intends to marry soon.
"I trust in God, and he's first in my life," Grayson said. "He opened this door for me."
Prosecutors said the victim's family in Grayson's case understood it was time for him to be free.
But Kevin Magrogan, whose brother, Thomas Magrogan, was killed in 1971, said before the hearing he planned to ask the judge to retry the last of the men, Bryant Lee Goodman, because a witness is still alive.
In court, Magrogan, a retired Baltimore County police officer, abandoned that strategy, instead questioning the wisdom of the release. He pointed to drug-related rules violations on Goodman's prison record.
In his old job, Magrogan had been able to arrange to see Goodman sitting in his prison cell in the 1970s.
"There was no other place for him," he said after the hearing.
Goodman was the only defendant who spoke in court. He said he was "truly sorry" for what happened to Thomas Magrogan and had dwelt on his crime for the 42 years he had been in prison.
"I don't think there has been a day gone past I haven't thought about that particular day," Goodman said.
The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled last year that standard jury instructions before 1980 led to unfair trials. Judges had told jurors they were supposed to consider what the law means, rather than simply the facts of a case. The high court decided in 1980 that such directions were defective because they robbed defendants of their right to be proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But it was not until last year that the court said the concern was significant enough to warrant new trials.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun