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Deputy Public Defender Becky Feldman. (The Daily Record/Maxmilian Franz)

Md. public defender’s division challenges life sentences for juveniles

Post-conviction section also seeks attorney volunteers

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s post-conviction division has adopted a strategy to help ensure juveniles convicted of crimes and serving life sentences without the possibility of parole are resentenced following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that such punishments are cruel and unusual.

Under the division’s new Youth-Resentencing Project, attorneys will investigate all life-without-parole cases to determine if the crime occurred before the convict reached age 18 and examine other cases involving juvenile offenders serving long sentences short of life without parole, said division chief Becky Feldman.

“We are looking at what if anything we can do to get them in court, to get them resentenced,” she added.

The project’s launch was spurred by the high court’s 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“When individualized consideration of the distinctive attributes of youth and other mitigating circumstances are not addressed, the draconian sentence of life without parole violates Miller,” the Post Conviction Defenders Division stated in announcing the project. “No child should be sentenced to die in prison.”

In Miller, the Supreme Court recognized that juveniles who commit even the most violent crimes are not beyond rehabilitation and the possibility of parole, Feldman said.

“Judges should consider the distinctive attributes of youth,” she added.

“They are impulsive,” Feldman said of teenagers. “They don’t think through the consequences of their actions.”

The division also seeks to go “beyond Miller” and argue that life sentences for juveniles, even with the possibility of parole after many years, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, she added.

The division is representing 18 men serving life sentences without the opportunity for parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles, Feldman said.

The post-conviction division opened in 1975 as the Inmate Services Division but changed its name to the Collateral Review Division in 1993. On Sept. 1, it became the Post Conviction Defenders Division, which Feldman said more clearly describes the 40-year-old section’s core mission of representing defendants in their post-conviction claims.

“We wanted a name that better reflected what we do on a daily basis,” Feldman said. “A lot of our clients didn’t understand what was meant by collateral review.”

Under Maryland law, a single post-conviction hearing is available to a convict after his or her appeals have been exhausted. Post-conviction claims can include ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, constitutional violations, faulty forensics and actual innocence.

If successful on post-conviction, the convict may receive a new trial, a corrected sentence or a new sentencing under the Maryland Uniform Post Conviction Procedure Act.

The breadth of the law’s right to seek post-conviction relief often overwhelms the division, which has 19 attorneys and four support staff, Feldman said.

“I think I get at least 100 letters a week that I have to respond to,” she said of convicts seeking the division’s representation.

“People who are convicted and are in prison are so desperate for an attorney to review their case,” Feldman added. “They are all entitled to an attorney under the statute, and we only have 19 attorneys to handle all that need.”

So the division is mounting a campaign with the goal of enlisting at least 100 attorneys to represent for free at least one incarcerated person on post-conviction, Feldman said.

“We have hundreds of cases that are waiting to be assigned to an attorney,” Feldman said, adding that the division has no money to pay the lawyers. “There’s just a huge backlog right now.”

In addition to its Youth Resentencing Project, the division has litigation teams dedicated to handling post-conviction proceedings based on the Maryland high court’s 2012 Unger v. State decision and the Supreme Court’s 1963 Brady v. Maryland ruling

In Unger, the Maryland Court of Appeals reopened courthouse doors to dozens of inmates convicted of violent crimes before 1980. The high court held that trial judges prior to 1980 routinely violated defendants’ constitutional right to due process by instructing jurors that their judicial instructions were “advisory.”

Feldman said she welcomed the Court of Appeals’ reaffirmance of its Unger decision last month, as the high court rejected Maryland’s argument in State v. Waine that Unger should be overturned.

“We’ve got a lot of work left to do,” Feldman said of the division’s 150 pending post-conviction petitions of people convicted before 1980.

In Brady, the Supreme Court ruled that a criminal defendant’s right to due process requires the prosecution to provide to the defense any potentially exculpatory evidence in the state’s possession.

In August, the division moved from its two offices, in Glen Burnie and at State Center in Baltimore, to a downtown location at 217 E. Redwood Street.

“The office space was unsuitable and we desperately needed new office space to accommodate all of the attorneys and staff we have,” Feldman said.

The division also recently published the first of what it plans to be a quarterly newsletter. The newsletter bears the slogan “Justice & Hope for Maryland’s Incarcerated.”