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Md. court orders resentencing of juvenile murderers serving life without parole

Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser. (File)

Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser. (File)

A Maryland appeals court has ordered three first-degree murderers to be resentenced in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that sentencing violent juvenile offenders to life in prison without the opportunity for parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment except in the most heinous cases.

The three cases are similar to pending litigation that the ACLU of Maryland has brought in U.S. district court in Baltimore on behalf of more than 200 people serving life sentences without the likelihood of parole for crimes committed when juveniles. Many of these people have served at least 30 years in prison, the American Civil Liberties Union’s state chapter stated in its filing.

Of the three convicts, Marcus William Turnstall has been in prison the longest, having been sentenced in 1991 for three murders he committed at age 17 in Prince George’s County. For those killings, gunshots through the back of the victims’ heads, Turstall was sentenced 25 years ago to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

In 2004, Aaron Dwayne Holly was convicted in the shooting death of a woman he or his accomplice shot while trying to escape the Baltimore County apartment the 17-year-old and an accomplice had broken into.

Kenneth Benjamin Alvira was found guilty in 2009 in the stabbing death of a woman whose vehicle he, then 16, and an accomplice had carjacked in Wicomico County.

In sending the three cases back for resentencing, the intermediate Court of Special Appeals on Tuesday cited the Supreme Court’s 2012 holding in Miller v. Alabama that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’” The justices said the constitutional prohibition does not necessarily apply to murder but requires judges to “take into account how children are different [from adults], and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

Sentencing judges must consider the offender’s “chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences” as well as the offender’s “family and home environment’ and his or her participation in the crime and the way familial or peer pressure may have affected him or her, the Supreme Court held.

In January, the Supreme Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller holding applies retroactively, to those convicted prior to the justices’ ruling.

Beyond the justices’ general statement, the Court of Special Appeals provided no guidance on what new sentences should be imposed or whether any or all of the three cases fall into the heinous-crime exception to the prohibition on life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders.

James Johnston, director of the Maryland Public Defender’s Youth Re-Sentencing Project, praised the Court of Special Appeals’ decisions.

“By granting new sentencing hearings, the Court of Special Appeals is implementing the requirements of Miller and Montgomery,” Johnston stated in an email message Wednesday. “The Supreme Court made it clear that only a very narrow group of children convicted of homicide offenses are eligible for life without parole. Before a sentence of life without parole can be imposed, a sentencing court must first consider carefully and thoroughly the impact of youth as a mitigating factor and then determine that a child defendant cannot ever be rehabilitated.”

Johnston said 16 people are serving life-without-parole sentences in Maryland for first-degree murders committed when under age 18.

The ACLU of Maryland seeks a judicial declaration that Maryland’s life without parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional and “to provide a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release” for these offenders in light of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller and Montgomery.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh has until July 8 to file a response to the ACLU chapter’s lawsuit, Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative et al. v. Gov. Larry Hogan et al., No. 1:26-cv-01021-ELH.

The Court of Special Appeals issued its decisions in three “unreported” opinions by Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser. He was joined in each opinion by Judges Patrick L. Woodward and James P. Salmon, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

Unreported opinions have no precedential significance beyond the specific cases.

The three cases are Marcus William Turnstall v. State of Maryland, Aaron Dwayne Holly v. State of Maryland, and Kenneth Benjamin Alvira v. State of Maryland, Nos. 814, 408 and 960 September Term 2015.