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Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby hires public defender to free elderly prisoners

Continuing her effort to reduce the number of men and women behind bars, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has hired a veteran public defender to try to set free some of the state’s oldest prisoners.

Mosby announced Monday that her office would review the cases of men and women older than 60 who served 25 years in prison or more on a life sentence, or those who served 25 years or more for a crime committed before the age of 18. The office will review only Baltimore City cases, and prisoners must have a documented medical condition that puts them at risk to the coronavirus.

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If those conditions are met, Mosby’s office would file a petition in court for the prisoner’s release based on an order earlier this year by Maryland’s chief judge in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mosby said she wants to redress mistakes of the past that caused a disproportionate number of Black men and women to serve decades behind bars. African Americans make up 30% of Maryland’s population, but 70% of prisoners, she said.

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Former Deputy Public Defender of Maryland Becky Feldman.
Former Deputy Public Defender of Maryland Becky Feldman. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

“Prosecutors historically have played a role and contributed to the epidemic of mass incarceration and racial inequality,” Mosby said. “We also have a responsibility to right that wrong.”

She’s hired the former deputy public defender Becky Feldman to review the cases. While in the Office of the Public Defender, Feldman helped coordinate the release of elderly prisoners under the so-called Unger ruling. Some 200 prisoners had their cases overturned after Maryland’s highest court found jury instructions misleading in many trials before the 1980s.

Feldman will review the cases of prisoners who fill out an application form online. The review will consider such things as the feelings of the victim and his or her family, the facts of the case, length of prison sentence, the inmate’s age, medical condition and remorse.

“There is so much humanity, talent and kindness behind prison walls, and we cannot give up on people just because they are behind bars,” said Feldman, who remains motivated in her work by the murder of her younger brother 20 years ago.

The office already won the release of one man. Last summer, Mosby’s office asked the courts to reconsider the sentence of Calvin McNeill, of Northeast Baltimore, a 56-year-old serving life in prison for a dice game robbery and murder committed while he was a teenager. He was released in July and ordered to five years of probation.

Prosecutors, however, delayed this year in agreeing to measures that would release the blind prisoner Anthony Blue after 40 years in prison for murder. Blue had maintained his innocence. The assistant state’s attorney had said he wanted to schedule a hearing so the victim’s family could weigh in. Blue contracted the coronavirus and died while waiting.

Any candidate for release must have a documented medical condition. That’s because Feldman will ask the judge to release the prisoner on the grounds of an order handed down by Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera. In April, Barbera ordered trial courts to identify and release prisoners statewide who remain vulnerable to the coronavirus and pose no risk to public safety. The virus has run rampant in prisons around the country.

More than 1,000 prisoners have contracted the virus in Maryland. Officials said last month that 13 of them have died.

It remains unclear how many men and women would meet the criteria. Each release also eases the burden on taxpayers, Mosby said.

Her effort coincides with similar case reviews by prosecutors in Prince George’s County, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Brooklyn.

Feldman will earn a salary of $115,000 a year, Mosby said.

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