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Md. high court to decide who sentences murderers to life in prison

Is it judges or juries following death-penalty repeal?

Among the cases the Court of Appeals will consider in its new term, which begins Thursday: whether the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration violated a car owner’s constitutional right to free speech in recalling his vanity license plate ‘MIERDA,’ the Spanish word for ‘s–t.’ (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

The Courts of Appeal building in Annapolis. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Maryland’s top court will consider whether the General Assembly – in its zeal to repeal capital punishment in 2013 – truly left it for juries rather than judges to decide whether a convicted first-degree murderer deserves the state’s new ultimate punishment, life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Court of Appeals this month agreed to review a lower court’s decision that the legislature might simply have neglected to change the sentencing authority from the jury to the judge when it substituted life without parole for the death penalty.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals, in affirming in August a quadruple murderer’s life sentence without parole, said the General Assembly never intended “to expand jury sentencing to non-capital first-degree murder cases.”

But attorney Julia C. Schiller, pressing Darrell Bellard’s appeal, stated in papers filed with the high court that Maryland’s Criminal Law Article “plainly states” that the decision to impose a life sentence without parole rests with the jury, which must render its sentence unanimously – the same standard that had existed for the death penalty.

Thus, Bellard’s judge-imposed sentence must be vacated and the case remanded for a new sentencing hearing before a jury, added Schiller, an assistant Maryland public defender, in her successful petition for high-court review.

Schiller cited Section 2-304(b)(1) of the Criminal Law Article, which states that “a determination by a jury to impose a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole must be unanimous,” and Section 2-304(b)(3), which states that “if, within a reasonable time, the jury is unable to agree to imposition of a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole, the court shall impose a sentence of imprisonment for life.”

In recent General Assembly sessions, legislative proposals to change the sentencing authority from the jury to the judge have failed, belying the contention that the legislature was merely neglectful when it repealed the death penalty, Schiller wrote.

“Had the sponsors believed that the current statute did not give murder defendants facing a life without parole sentence the right to be sentenced by a jury, it is doubtful that they would have sponsored any bill,” Schiller wrote. “Similarly, if the sponsors had simply thought the current statute was confusing, the bills they sponsored surely would have indicated that they intended merely to clarify that Section 2-304 did not provide for jury sentencing in life without parole cases.”

But Assistant Attorney General Todd W. Hesel, in papers filed with the Court of Appeals, cited Section 2-304(a) of the Criminal Law Article, which calls on “the court” – not the jury – to “conduct a separate sentencing proceeding as soon as practicable after the defendant is found guilty of murder in the first degree to determine whether the defendant shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole or to imprisonment for life.”

By referring to the court rather than the jury, the General Assembly “clearly signaled its intent” to have judges decide whether the sentence should be life without the possibility of parole, Hesel wrote in his unsuccessful request that the high court not hear Bellard’s appeal.

Hesel stated the high court should not read any meaning into the General Assembly’s consideration and rejection of legislation to remove the references to jury in Section 2-304.

The bills’ sponsors mistakenly believed the erasures were needed to make clear that judges, not juries, decide life sentences without parole, Hesel said. He added that “the belief of a few General Assembly members hardly reveals the intent of the entire legislature when it repealed the death penalty” in 2013.

‘Complicated task’

A Prince George’s County Circuit Court jury convicted Bellard in April 2014 for the August 2010 shooting deaths of two women, a boy and a girl in Lanham. Prosecutors contended that Bellard, a drug dealer, went on the murderous rampage because he believed the children’s mother had stolen his marijuana.

The circuit court judge, not the jury, sentenced Bellard to four consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the judge-given sentence in a reported 3-0 opinion.

The appellate court said the legislature, in repealing capital punishment, never intended to remove from judges the sentencing authority in non-death-penalty cases.

Repealing the death penalty “obviously was a complicated task, and details can – and apparently did – get overlooked,” Judge Douglas R.M. Nazarian wrote for the court.

Repealing the death penalty “obviously was a complicated task, and details can – and apparently did – get overlooked,” Judge Douglas R.M. Nazarian wrote for the court.

Repealing the death penalty “obviously was a complicated task, and details can – and apparently did – get overlooked,” Judge Douglas R.M. Nazarian wrote for the court. “We see nothing in the purpose or language of the legislation itself that suggests any intent to expand jury sentencing to defendants facing life without parole. And although we could have stopped there, we reviewed the legislative history as well, and it too supports a conclusion that the purpose of the legislation was to repeal the death penalty, rather than alter sentencing procedures in non-capital murder cases.”

Nazarian was joined in the opinion by Judges Michael W. Reed and Robert A. Zarnoch, a retired judge sitting by special assignment.

Bellard then sought review by the Court of Appeals. His case is one of five appeals pending before the high court on the sentencing issue, but the only one the judges have agreed to hear so far.

The Court of Appeals is expected to hear arguments in March and issue its decision by Aug. 31, according to the clerk’s office.

The case is Darrell Bellard v. State of Maryland, No. 72, September Term 2016.


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