ANNAPOLIS – The only judge on Maryland’s top court to have served in the General Assembly grilled attorneys for a convicted killer and the state Monday as they battled over whether legislators, in repealing capital punishment in 2013, truly left it for juries rather than judges to decide whether convicted first-degree murderers deserve the state’s new ultimate punishment, life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Judge Joseph M. Getty, who opposed the repeal as a senator in 2013, questioned defense attorney Julia C. Schiller’s argument that the law ending capital punishment is “unambiguous” in giving juries, not judges, authority to issue life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentences, as also was the case when prosecutors pressed for the death penalty. Schiller, an assistant Maryland public defender, supported her argument by noting that bills giving judges sentencing authority in life-without-parole cases have failed in recent years in the General Assembly.
But Getty, who left the Senate in January 2015 to become Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief legislative aide, said the General Assembly’s leaders might have quashed those bills for fear they would be amended to restore the death penalty and not because they would give judges sentencing authority in life-without-parole cases.
Assistant Maryland Attorney General Todd W. Hesel, however, fared no better with Getty in arguing that the General Assembly’s failure to delete the jury-sentencing provision in repealing the death penalty was “just an oversight” and was never the legislature’s intention.
The court cannot simply ignore the Criminal Law Article provision addressing jury sentencing in cases of life without the possibility of parole, Getty said. If the provision is ambiguous, the high court should presumably side with the first-degree murderers and their asserted right to have a jury determine their sentence, added Getty, whom Hogan appointed to the Court of Appeals last year.
Getty, the high court’s junior member, emerged as its most inquisitive as the judges heard Schiller’s appeal of a convicted quadruple first-degree murderer’s judge-issued sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Schiller argued that Darrell Bellard was entitled under Section 2-304(b)(1) of the Criminal Law Article to have a jury render sentence.
The provision states that “a determination by a jury to impose a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole must be unanimous.” Section 2-304(b)(3) 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.”
Pressing Bellard’s appeal, Schiller told the high court that the General Assembly has made plain its intention that juries decide whether a convicted first-degree murder deserves life without the possibility of parole.
“If it was an ‘oops,’ they wouldn’t have left it there,” Schiller said, referring to the state legislators. The Criminal Law Article must be “strictly construed,” she added in urging the high court to either remand the case to have a jury set Bellard’s sentence or order the default sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Hesel countered that the General Assembly has historically permitted juries to determine sentences only in death penalty cases.
In repealing capital punishment, the General Assembly was not also “passively transforming” to the jury the function of deciding whether a convicted first-degree murderer should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Hesel said.
“In the appropriate context, it becomes quite clear,” he added. “This is not what the legislature intended.”
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 intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld the judge-given sentence in a reported 3-0 opinion last August.
The appellate court said the legislature, in repealing capital punishment, never intended to remove from judges the sentencing authority in non-death-penalty cases.
Bellard then sought review by the Court of Appeals.
The high court is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, Darrell Bellard v. State of Maryland, No. 72, September Term 2016.