ANNAPOLIS – The authority to sentence convicted first-degree murderers to life in prison without the possibility of parole rests with judges not juries, Maryland’s top court ruled unanimously Friday in resolving a dispute that arose when the General Assembly repealed the death penalty in 2013.
In replacing capital punishment with life without the possibility of parole, the General Assembly failed to remove expressly the provision that juries must decide whether a killer is put to death.
Criminal defense attorneys argued the repeal-and-replace legislation, Senate Bill 276, must be read strictly; thus, a no-parole life sentence – like the death penalty before it — can be rendered only by a jury, not a judge. The Maryland attorney general’s office countered the failure to strike the jury-sentencing provision was a mere oversight as legislators were focused on ending capital punishment.
In its 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals sided with the attorney general, noting the long-held practice in Maryland law that juries hand down sentences only in death-penalty cases.
“We have no hesitancy whatsoever in concluding that, with Senate Bill 276, the General Assembly’s intent was only to repeal the death penalty, and not to grant a defendant who is convicted for first-degree murder the right to have a jury determine whether to impose life imprisonment without the possibility of parole where the state has filed a notice of intent to seek such a sentence,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the court. “With respect to legislative intent, we make the obvious point that, had it desired to do so, the General Assembly easily could have introduced and enacted a bill, or even fashioned a provision of Senate Bill 276, to provide that where the state seeks life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and where a defendant is convicted of first-degree murder, the defendant has the right to choose to have either a trial court or a jury determine whether to impose life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”
The attorney general’s office issued a statement saying it was “very pleased that the Court of Appeals unanimously reached the common-sense conclusion that the general assembly, when it repealed the death penalty in 2013, did not intend to create the right to a jury sentencing in life-without-parole cases.”
The court’s decision came one day after the Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill to make clear that only judges get to decide whether a first-degree murderer is sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. On Friday, the Senate delayed until next week further consideration of the measure, Senate Bill 1187, to enable senators to review whether to hold a vote in light of the court’s ruling.
Earlier versions of the legislation died in the General Assembly in 2015 and 2016.
The Maryland public defender’s office had cited those legislative defeats as evidence that the General Assembly had, in fact, intended juries to handle no-parole life sentences, an argument the high court rejected.
“In our view, the General Assembly’s inaction with respect to bills that were introduced after Senate Bill 276 was passed in 2013 is not indicative of an intent on the part of the General Assembly to create a right for a defendant who is convicted of first-degree murder to have a jury determine whether to impose life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” Watts wrote. “Simply put, we conclude that legislative action speaks louder than legislative inaction; and, here, the legislative action in question is that the General Assembly repealed the death penalty – nothing more, nothing less.”
With its decision, the high court left intact the four consecutive life sentences without parole that a Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge gave to Darrell Bellard after his 2014 jury conviction 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 intermediate Court of Special Appeals affirmed the sentence last August, saying the General Assembly never intended “to expand jury sentencing to non-capital first-degree murder cases.” Bellard, represented by the public defender’s office, then sought review by the Court of Appeals.
Assistant Maryland Public Defender Julia C. Schiller, Bellard’s appellate counsel, did not return a telephone message seeking comment Friday.
The high court rendered its decision in Darrell Bellard v. State of Maryland, No. 72, September Term 2016.