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Md. high court applies juvenile life-sentence decision.

Byline: Steve Lash

Maryland's top court Wednesday put to work its landmark August decision upholding the constitutionality of life sentences for juvenile offenders as it agreed to hear three convicted lifers' appeals but then summarily affirmed their punishments.

In three terse unsigned orders, the Court of Appeals said it was affirming the sentences in light of its ruling in the consolidated cases James E. Bowie v. Maryland and Daniel Carter v. Maryland, Nos. 54 and 55 September Term 2017.

In its 4-3 decision in August, the court ruled that Maryland law, parole commission regulations and a 2018 gubernatorial order provide life-sentenced juvenile offenders a constitutionally required "meaningful opportunity" for release based on their maturity and rehabilitation behind bars.

In an indication of its internal divide, the court noted in its three orders Wednesday that "a majority" of the panel concurred in the summary affirmances. The orders upheld the life sentences of Byron A. Bowie for first-degree murder; Jafet L. Hernandez for first-degree rape and first-degree sexual assault; and Gordon Pack for two counts of first degree rape.

The Court of Appeals' grant of review and summary affirmance of lower-court decisions, with a citation to its August ruling, appears unusual insofar as the judges could have simply denied review, or "cert.," without comment and the practical result would have been the same in the three cases.

The orders, then, could indicate the court's desire to be more transparent and assertive regarding its ruling upholding the constitutionality of life sentences for juvenile offenders in Maryland, said former Court of Appeals Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr.

"This is an issue that a lot of people are waiting to hear from the court," Murphy said. "People need to know what the decision is. It's better done this way than simply a denial of cert."

In its landmark ruling this summer, the high court relied on the regulations and particularly upon Gov. Larry Hogan's February executive order stating that all signs of maturity and rehabilitation will be considered in parole decisions regarding juvenile offenders. Under Maryland's system, the commission makes recommendations regarding parole but the final decision rests with the governor.

Hogan's executive order has the force of law and "attempts to bridge the gap between the unfettered discretion that the legislature has given to the governor with respect to parole of inmates serving life sentences and the requirements of the Eighth Amendment as to juvenile offenders," Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the majority.

"Is the 2018 executive order effective and appropriate to bring (life sentences of juveniles) into compliance with the Constitution ?" McDonald added. "In our view it is."

McDonald was joined in the opinion by Judges Shirley M. Watts, Michele D. Hotten and Joseph M. Getty.

'Aspirational decision'

The court's ruling was a setback for critics of Maryland's handling of life-sentenced juvenile offenders, who say the parole system is essentially standardless, consigning those who committed crimes in their youth to die in prison without a truly meaningful opportunity for release.

That criticism was shared by the high court's dissenting judges, who said the law, regulations and executive order provide too much discretion to the commission and ultimately the governor in violation of the constitutional mandate outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida.

For a court to leave a constitutional mandate to the whims of a parole board and governor is an "aspirational" decision rather than one rooted in "a realistic manner," Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote in dissent.

"Neither the regulation nor the executive order . sufficiently cabins the discretion that the commission and governor each wield, so as to render constitutional that which currently is not," Barbera wrote.

"It is neither just nor merciful, much less compliant with the Eighth Amendment, that, currently in Maryland, a young teenager who commits a crime that leads to a life sentence is likely to spend the rest of his or her life in prison," Barbera added. "And it is not just to have on the books the 'possibility of parole' yet provide a protocol for granting or denying parole that is without standards to guide those who are the decisionmakers: the Parole Commission and the governor. Under the United States Constitution, a meaningful opportunity for release cannot exist in name only, as it does now in Maryland."

Judges Clayton Greene Jr. and Sally D. Adkins joined Barbera's dissent.

Maryland governors from both political parties went nearly 25 years without adopting any parole commission recommendation to release a prisoner sentenced to life in prison. Hogan, a Republican, ended that drought by granting non-medical parole to two individuals who were serving life, as well commuting four life sentences shortly after taking office in January 2015.

Prior to issuing the executive order, Hogan commuted the sentence of one juvenile lifer and rejected the commission's recommendation to parole another, according to the governor's office.

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Publication:Daily Record (Baltimore, MD)
Geographic Code:1U5MD
Date:Oct 17, 2018
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