Maryland has urged a federal judge to dismiss a civil-rights lawsuit that claims the state is unconstitutionally holding more than 200 juvenile offenders who are now adults under de facto sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole because Maryland governors have historically not granted parole to lifers.
In court papers filed Friday, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh argues the constitutional prohibition on life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders, except for the most heinous crimes, applies to actual sentences of life without parole — not speculative claims that parole will never be granted.
“The Supreme Court has not recognized a federal cause of action of the type that plaintiffs attempt to assert here: that a constitutional sentence of life with the possibility of parole imposed on a juvenile can be transformed by the alleged action or inaction of executive officials into an unconstitutional sentence of life without the possibility of parole,” Frosh wrote in the state’s dismissal motion in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore. “Under the jurisprudence of both [the Supreme Court and Maryland Court of Appeals], the plaintiffs received constitutional sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole under a system that grants them meaningful opportunity to prove that they are entitled to be released before the end of their natural lives. No more is required.”
Frosh’s filing came in response to the ACLU of Maryland’s lawsuit seeking a judicial declaration that a sentence in Maryland of life with the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders is in reality a life sentence due to the reticence of governors to grant parole. Many of these offenders have served at least 30 years in prison with a most unlikely chance for parole, the American Civil Liberties Union chapter stated in urging the federal court “to provide a meaningful and realistic opportunity” for their release in light of two recent Supreme Court decisions.
In 2012, the high court held in 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.”
In January, the Supreme Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller holding applies retroactively, to those convicted prior to the justices’ ruling.
The ACLU of Maryland filed its suit on April 6, claiming that life with the possibility of parole is the functional equivalent of life without the possibility of parole in the state.
“Maryland’s current practices all but guarantee that juveniles sentenced to life – even those with a theoretical opportunity for parole – will die in prison no matter how thoroughly they have been reformed, all without adequate consideration of their youth status,” the ACLU chapter’s complaint states. “Although the law describes such sentences as ‘parole-eligible’ life sentences, in practice juvenile lifers are never paroled, regardless of their demonstrated maturity, rehabilitation, or other individual aspects of their record. Over the last 20 years, and as of the date of this filing, no juvenile lifer has been paroled, irrespective of their reform as they matured into adulthood, or their readiness for release.”
But Frosh, in the state’s filing, disputes the ACLU’s contention that life sentences with the possibility of parole are de facto life sentences. He cites four cases in which former Govs. Martin O’Malley and Robert Ehrlich Jr. commuted the sentences of juvenile offenders between the years 2003 and 2015.
The ACLU of Maryland’s lawsuit is signed by the group’s lawyers Deborah A. Jeon and Sonia Kumar, as well as attorneys Barry Fleishman and James E. Brown, of Kilpatrick Townsend Stockton LLP in Washington, D.C.
Frosh’s filing is co-signed by Assistant Attorneys General Steven M. Sullivan, Julia Doyle Bernhardt and Michael O. Doyle.
U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander, who is presiding over the litigation, has not set a date for ruling on the state’s motion for dismissal.
The case is Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative et al. v. Gov. Larry Hogan et al., No. 1:16-cv-01021-ELH.
The lawsuit is unrelated to Maryland’s intermediate Court of Special Appeals’ order last month that state trial judges resentence three first-degree murderers in light of the Supreme Court rulings in Miller and Montgomery.
Unlike the juvenile offenders in the ACLU’s lawsuit, these three convicts — Marcus William Turnstall, Aaron Dwayne Holly and Kenneth Benjamin Alvira – had actually been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The three are among 16 people in Maryland serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for offenses committed while juveniles, according to the state public defender’s office.