A Baltimore judge has vacated the murder conviction of a man who has served more than 50 years of a life sentence. It is one of the latest in a growing number of murder convictions that have been overturned by the so-called Unger ruling.
But Charles Scott won't be released from prison just yet.
That's because he has tried to gain his freedom before — by breaking out of prison — and still owes time for additional crimes he committed while on the outside. In 1981, a judge sentenced him to 45 years for a bank robbery that ended in a confrontation in which he shot a Baltimore County police officer.
Scott, 69, will soon be transferred to federal custody, where the U.S. Parole Commission will determine how much more time he must serve, Scott's lawyer said.
Because Scott's 45-year federal sentence for bank robbery ran concurrent to his state sentence for murder, attorney Daniel J, Wright said, he could be released within "a few years," given his age and the fact he's already served 70 percent of his 45-year federal sentence.
"He went from being a lifer to having a number," Wright said.
Scott was convicted of first-degree murder in 1966 for the killing of 30-year-old Vernon L. Wilson. But his conviction was overturned after the state's highest court ruled in 2012 that improper jury instructions had rendered many convictions before 1980 invalid.
About 130 prisoners who were serving life sentences for violent crimes in Maryland have been freed as a result of the decision in Unger v. State of Maryland.
Critics of the decision say the ruling has harmed victims and their families, who believed their attackers were behind bars for good.
"They anticipate the sentence given by the court is a final ruling," said Russell P. Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center. "Nobody expected years later that these people who committed heinous offenses would be released."
When Deputy State's Attorney Antonio Gioia called Scott's case before Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams last month, he said it was "in the interest of justice" to reopen the case, according to a recording of the hearing.
Wright said the state would then drop the charges against Scott rather than pursue a new trial.
Wilson's family could not be reached for comment. No family members appeared at Scott's latest hearing, and a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office said the office could not locate family members. The state's attorney's office declined to comment further.
As sentences are vacated, prosecutors must decide whether to retry the cases or drop charges.
"In general, these Unger cases are presenting a very challenging situation for prosecutors because the cases are so old," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger. He was not involved in Scott's case.
"Very often, the evidence has been destroyed, time has eroded the memory of witnesses and victims," and those involved in the case can be difficult to locate, Shellenberger said.
Scott said he was a wayward teenager before he was charged in the killing of Wilson, who was shot near his car on Anoka Avenue, near the western edge of Druid Hill Park, in 1965.
"I have a lot of regrets. I wish I had did all the right things as a kid," Scott said during a recent interview at the Jessup Correctional Institution.
In 1971, Scott and four other inmates escaped from Jessup through an abandoned tunnel that led out to the front parking lot, according to an article in The Evening Sun. He was caught 13 months later.
Scott escaped from Jessup again in the late 1970s, he said, and robbed three banks. The last was the National Bank at Woodmoor Shopping Center in Baltimore County. That robbery ended in the shootout with police.
Scott said he shot an officer in the hand, and was shot multiple times.
"I wasn't trying to go to prison," he said. He planned to do whatever he needed to keep from returning, even if that meant dying, he said.
Scott was sentenced in 1981 to 45 years for bank robbery, bank larceny and assault during a bank robbery, according to federal court records.
After spending two more time behind bars, Scott said, he has gained some clarity.
"I've only been able to see life differently after being in prison for these years," he said. For so long, he said, "there was nothing there for me to be about. There was no dreams I could fulfill. I had no goals."
Butler, of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, said Scott's possible release is worrisome because he continued to commit crimes while serving a murder sentence.
"Obviously … this person did not learn a lesson," Butler said.