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Md. high court will hear state’s juvenile-sentencing appeal

Maryland’s top court will consider whether a man sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole for the brutal slayings of three people and the attempted murder of two others while a juvenile was improperly granted a motion for resentencing based on the claim that his punishment is unconstitutional.

The Court of Appeals last week agreed to hear the state’s argument that the sentence does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment because Phillip Clements has the chance for release. The state argues that the possibility of parole means Clements has a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” as the Supreme Court said is required for convicts who committed their crimes while juveniles.

The Prince George’s County Circuit Court granted Clements’ motion for a rehearing based on his attorney’s argument that Maryland virtually never grants parole to convicts serving life sentences regardless of their age when the crimes were committed. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals declined to consider the state’s appeal, saying appellate consideration must await Clements’ resentencing by the circuit court.

The Court of Appeals’ consideration of the state’s appeal comes amid the high court’s decision to hear the appeals of three now-adult lifers who argue that their sentences – though including the possibility of parole – violate the Eighth Amendment.

The lifers cite, through Assistant Maryland Public Defender Brian Saccenti, the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida that a meaningful opportunity for release is required based on maturity and rehabilitation. They state – as Clements successfully has, so far – that the Maryland General Assembly has “done nothing” and the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services very little in the seven years since Graham to ensure the Parole Commission considers a juvenile offender’s maturity and rehabilitation in prison in making its recommendation to the governor.

The Court of Appeals will hear the state’s appeal, as well as those of these three lifers, in February and render decisions by Aug. 31.

The state’s appeal is docketed at the high court as State of Maryland v. Phillip James Clements, No. 57 September Term 2017.

Barbell beating

In its successful request for Court of Appeals review, the state argued that life-with-the-possibility-of-parole sentences are constitutional under Supreme Court precedent.

Graham makes it plain that what is required is consideration for parole, not a guarantee of eventual release within a certain time frame,” wrote Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and his assistant, Robert Taylor Jr. “Parole is discretionary, and discretion will be exercised in different ways at different times.”

Clements will be in his mid-70s when he becomes eligible for parole in 2047.

In January 1989, he was 17 years old when he beat to death with a barbell Kathryn Gatlin, 64, and her children Nancy Barowski, 41, and John Barowski, 45, in Gatlin’s Laurel apartment. He seriously wounded Gatlin’s daughter Toni Adams, who was in her mid-30s, and her 13-year-old grandson, Donald Hughes.

Clements was sentenced to five consecutive life-with-the-possibility-of-parole sentences.

Hughes, now approaching middle age, joined the state in its high-court challenge to Clements’ resentencing.

“(V)ictim Donald Hughes, unlike the state, is not an organizational entity but is a sentient being who will suffer personal revictimization by a new sentencing hearing which has been ordered, contrary to Maryland law related to motions to correct illegal sentences,” Hughes attorneys, Russell P. Butler and Victor Stone, wrote in papers filed with the Court of Appeals.

“It is extremely difficult and painful for victims to have to return to court for a resentencing proceeding because doing so reopens old wounds,” added Butler and Stone, both of the Maryland Victims’ Resource Center. “These appearances by victims resurface the pain, publicity, anger, and all the emotional wounds that victims struggle, often every day, to bear.”

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