Shirley Rubin

Shirley Rubin, 89, tells the story of the murder of her husband, Benjamin, in 1972. The convicted gunman, Welford Monroe, was sentenced to life plus 35 years but now has been released. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / July 10, 2013)

Thirteen inmates convicted of murder have been released from prison — and dozens more could be freed — after Maryland's highest court ruled that jurors had been given improper instructions in the decades-old cases.

The Court of Appeals ruling effectively entitled as many as 200 prisoners convicted before 1980 of crimes including murder, attempted murder and rape to demand new trials. The difficulty of retrying the old cases has prosecutors throughout the state fighting to keep violent offenders behind bars.

Faced with several setbacks as it attempted to block new trials, the Baltimore state's attorney's office has released 14 inmates it believes do not pose a threat to public safety — 13 murderers and one man convicted of attempted murder. Prosecutors in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties say they are dealing with a smaller number of cases and hope to contest them all.

"It's really sad that this is reopening wounds for these loved ones, but we're really working hard to achieve just outcomes," said Mark Cheshire, spokesman for the Baltimore prosecutor's office, which is handling close to half of the affected cases. "If there's any violence [in an inmate's prison record] we're going to go to trial."

The releases have left victims' families struggling to understand how the 2012 ruling, which received little public attention until now, undid convictions that seemed long settled.

On Wednesday, Shirley Rubin, 89, pulled a picture of her murdered husband, Benjamin, from a wall lined with photos of their children's and grandchildren's weddings and portraits of the family over the decades since his death.

"He missed all of this," Rubin said.

Rubin said she was sick to her stomach when she received a call in December with news that the convicted gunman, Welford Monroe, now 59, was eligible for release.

Monroe was one of three young men who robbed the Rubins' Southwest Baltimore grocery store on April 19, 1972. Monroe, then 17, was sentenced to life plus 35 years for murder, assault with intent to murder and armed robbery.

Benjamin Rubin, 49, was lying on the floor when he was shot. Another bullet hit Shirley Rubin, traveling through her arm and lodging in her hip, where it remains today.

Rubin said facing Monroe at his release hearing last month made her feel like "someone had a dagger in my heart. I looked right at him.

"He's gone free. He has ruined my life," Rubin said. "The only thing that kept me going in these last 41 years was the fact that [Monroe] was in prison."

Neither Monroe nor his attorney could be reached for comment.

Rubin praised the work of the state's attorney's office, but relatives of other victims said they thought city prosecutors could have done more to keep convicted killers under lock and key.

Cheshire said each case was reviewed carefully and plans laid for inmates' lives on the outside before the decision to release them. In exchange for not demanding new trials, prosecutors agreed to reduce their sentences so they could be released.

Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor who is working on securing the release of some inmates, said the state is doing the right thing because the jury instruction system in place before 1980 was fundamentally unfair to defendants.

"These were lawless trials," he said. "There is absolutely no reason to trust the results in these cases."

Like other prosecutors throughout the state, Cheshire said, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein is looking to try some cases again, locating old witnesses and trial transcripts.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger's office is handling six cases, and expects more to arise.

"If you killed someone in the '70s and a judge saw fit to give you a life sentence ... that sentence should be carried out," Shellenberger said.