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Md. court: ‘Individualized’ sentencing not needed for juvenile lifers with parole

Maryland judges can sentence juveniles convicted of murder to life in prison with the chance for parole without first considering the killer’s youth and related circumstances, the state’s second-highest court has ruled.

Such individualized considerations are required only before a judge sentences a juvenile to the state’s ultimate punishment — life without parole – because that sentence requires a finding that the young killer is “incorrigible” and beyond hope for rehabilitation, the Court of Special Appeals stated in its reported 3-0 decision last week.

The ruling appears ripe for review by Maryland’s top court, as the decision is based on an interpretation of the Court of Appeals’ adoption of an “individualized sentencing process” for juveniles convicted of murder.

The Court of Special Appeals interpreted the process as applying only to killers under age 18 who have been sentenced to life without parole. In its interpretation, the court rejected 17-year-old killer David Andrew Hartless’ argument through counsel that the Court of Appeals intended the process to apply to all juvenile life sentences, including those in which parole is a possibility.

Hartless’ lead attorney, Robert W. Biddle, said Monday that he and his client will be seeking review by the Court of Appeals but declined to comment on what arguments would be raised. Biddle is with Nathans & Biddle LLP in Baltimore.

The Court of Appeals adopted the sentencing process last year in its Carter v. State of Maryland decision, which followed U.S. Supreme Court rulings that the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits sentencing juvenile killers to life in prison without the possibility of parole unless the judge found them “incorrigible.”

The sentencing process under Carter requires judges to consider the juvenile killer’s age, immaturity, impetuosity, home environment and ability to appreciate risks and consequences. Judges must also weigh the extent of the juvenile’s participation in the crime, ability to comprehend a plea bargain, susceptibility to familial and peer pressure and possibility of rehabilitation.

Parsing the Carter decision, the Court of Special Appeals said the state high court delineated its sentencing process in bulleted items addressing not juvenile life sentences generally but the Supreme Court’s ruling on incorrigible young offenders specifically in its Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana decisions in 2012 and 2016, respectively.

“The right identified in Miller and Montgomery pertains specifically to juvenile offenders sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, not to all juvenile offenders,” Judge Stuart R. Berger wrote for the Court of Special Appeals.

“It is plain that the bullet point list set forth in Carter simply summarized the right identified in Miller and Montgomery without including a portion of the relevant language identifying the group of juvenile offenders to whom the right applied,” Berger added. “If the Court of Appeals intended to recognize this new right, it is unreasonable to believe that the right would be presented via a bullet point summary of Supreme Court authority. Rather the right would be announced clearly and unambiguously.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office said in statement Monday that “we think the decision correctly interprets the Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Carter and the relevant Supreme Court decisions on juvenile sentencing, so we’re satisfied with the outcome.”

Hartless was 17 years old in October 1987 when he robbed a High’s convenience store in Columbia and stabbed the clerk, 20-year-old Angelica Velazco, to death, according to the Court of Special Appeals’ opinion.

A Howard County Circuit Court jury in 1989 found Hartless guilty of first-degree murder and robbery with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder and 20 additional years for the robbery

The circuit court rejected the state’s request that Hartless be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Hartless appealed his conviction in 2017, citing the Supreme Court’s Miller and Montgomery decisions. The Court of Special Appeals stayed the appeal pending the Court of Appeals’ ruling in Carter.

With Carter decided, the Court of Special Appeals upheld Hartless’ conviction and punishment, saying he had not been sentenced to life without parole and thus an individualized sentencing process was not required in his case.

Berger was joined in the opinion by Judges Kevin F. Arthur and Donald E. Beachley.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in David Andrew Hartless v. State of Maryland, No. 123, September Term 2017.

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