Three men serving life sentences in Maryland prisons for crimes they committed as teenagers appeared in a packed Baltimore courtroom on Wednesday as a federal judge heard arguments in their lawsuit challenging the state's parole system.
It was the first hearing in the case, filed last year by the ACLU of Maryland amid a national debate over lengthy sentences for juveniles.
Attorneys for the three prisoners, who are now in their 50s, say Maryland's parole system does not comply with requirements of a series of Supreme Court decisions that found life-without-parole sentences for youths charged as adults are unconstitutional except in rare cases. Their lawsuit named Gov. Larry Hogan and top state corrections officials as defendants.
Attorneys for the state, meanwhile, argued for the case to be dismissed, saying Maryland does offer a chance for juveniles sentenced to life to be released.
Judge Ellen L. Hollander did not rule Wednesday on the state's motion.
An attorney for the state, Michael Doyle, said the prisoners who are suing are all serving parole-eligible life sentences in murder cases. The Supreme Court cases cited by the plaintiffs, he said, deal with life-without-parole sentences.
"It's undisputed that [they] are eligible for parole," Doyle said.
Doyle said the state recently made changes to its system, such as new regulations requiring the parole commission to consider certain factors for people incarcerated for crimes they committed as juveniles. These factors include the inmate's home environment and family relationships at the time of the offense, and whether others pressured the juvenile to commit it.
The lawsuit says that while an inmate may be technically eligible for parole, Maryland's parole scheme for juveniles sentenced to life is "is a system of parole in name only" because none of them have been granted parole in two decades. It says more than 200 prisoners are serving life sentences in Maryland for crimes they committed as juveniles.
Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said at the hearing the system has "morphed into a system of clemency." The lawsuit alleges that this system is one "in which grants of release are exceptionally rare, are governed by no substantive or enforceable standards, and are masked from view of those affected by assertions of executive privilege."
The ACLU brought the case on behalf of the three prisoners and the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, a Baltimore-based prisoners' rights group. The lawsuit says that the prisoners — Calvin McNeill, Kenneth Tucker and Nathaniel Foster — and others like them have demonstrated progress and rehabilitation but still have no hope for release.
The Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center and family members of three murder victims in unrelated cases — Stephanie Roper, Shirley Rue Mullinix and Carl Krogmann — have sought unsuccessfully to intervene in the federal court case. In each of the cases, the victims were killed by teens.
In court filings, lawyers for the victims' representatives wrote that the lawsuit has caused anguish for some families.
For relatives of Mullinix, a Howard County teacher who was raped and strangled by her student, one court filing states, "this suit has caused [them] to relive the moments of their mother's and grandmother's death, experience nightmares, have sleepless nights, live in fear, and struggle emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually."
In Maryland, the governor must sign off on paroling a person sentenced to life. Even if the parole commission recommends it, the governor does not have to grant it.
Throughout the hearing, Hollander questioned how inmates could expect a meaningful chance for release when the governor does not have to follow the recommendations of the parole commission. Even though the commission must now consider certain factors for inmates who were juveniles at the time of their offense, the governor still has "unfettered, unbridled discretion to do what he pleases" with no standards, she said.
"How is it meaningful if there's nothing guiding the governor's decision-making?" she said.
The courtroom was filled to capacity. Many spectators were loved ones of state prisoners and people who have been released from prison under a decision known as Unger v. Maryland.
Eula Tucker, 78, the mother of Kenneth Tucker, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said she attended the hearing "to show my love, to show my support."
According to the lawsuit, Kenneth Tucker was sentenced at age 17 to life with parole in 1974 for participating in a robbery-murder in which his co-defendant killed the victim. He pleaded guilty believing he would someday be eligible for parole and "began turning his life around almost immediately upon his incarceration."
"I want him to be out so we can at least share some part of my life that's left," his mother said. "He's been in there all his life."