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Md. high court weighs if judges must list maturity factors in sentencing juveniles

Judges sentencing juveniles convicted of first-degree felony murder must state on the record that they considered the convicts’ youth, lack of maturity, impulsiveness and susceptibility to peer pressure before handing down the punishment, a defense attorney argued to Maryland’s top court Tuesday.

Such an express statement from the bench is necessary to help ensure that the youthful offenders’ sentence for the most serious offense short of premeditated murder does not violate the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, Robert W. Biddle told the Court of Appeals.

But Assistant Maryland Attorney General Jer Welter cited U.S. Supreme Court precedent in saying a detailed judicial pronouncement is not constitutionally required even if the youngster is being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a punishment Maryland law bars for juvenile convicts.

Biddle and Welter also battled over Biddle’s contention, in court papers, that Maryland’s constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment – found in Article 25 of the Declaration of Rights – is broader than the federal Constitution’s ban in the Eighth Amendment.

The Court of Appeals weighed the breadth of the constitutions’ prohibitions and judicial sentencing statements as Biddle pressed the appeal of a man who — when 16 years old in 2009 — abetted a home invasion in Chesapeake City in which Terri McCoy was shot to death; her father, Terry McCoy, was beaten; and her mother, Geraldine McCoy, was held captive while $500,000 in jewelry was stolen.

Seth D. Jedlicka, now 29, was convicted in Cecil County Circuit Court of first-degree felony murder and sentenced in 2010 to life in prison with all but 60 years suspended. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence, despite the lack of an express statement from the sentencing judge.

In Jedlicka’s high court appeal, Biddle said both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals have held that sentencing judges must consider the juvenile convict’s immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate the consequences of his or her actions, lest the punishment be unconstitutionally severe.

Biddle added that the Maryland Constitution goes further than the Eighth Amendment in requiring judges to take the additional step of explaining the role these youth-related factors played in their sentencing decisions.

“There needs to be an explicit on the record review of the unique attributes of youth,” said Biddle, of Nathans & Biddle LLP in Baltimore.

A judge’s “specific consideration” of these factors prevents a “lack of clarity, lack of transparency” in sentencing juveniles, he added.

But Court of Appeals Judge Steven B. Gould appeared skeptical of Biddle’s argument that the Constitution demands an on the record explanation. Gould noted that the sentencing judge heard testimony regarding Jedlicka’s lack of maturity and presumably considered that before handing down the sentence.

Welter, in response to Biddle, said the Court of Appeals has consistently held that the Maryland Constitution contains no more protection against cruel and unusual punishment than the federal Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. As a result, judges need not state expressly their consideration of youth-related factors in handing down sentences, Welter said, citing the Supreme Court’s decision last April in Jones v. Mississippi.

Welter added that any decisions regarding the sentencing of juveniles are best left to the Maryland General Assembly, which last year enacted legislation prohibiting life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offender regardless of the heinousness of their crimes.

“The General Assembly is innovating in this area” of juvenile justice, Welter said. “This is an argument that should be taken to the legislature.”

The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, Seth D. Jedlicka v. State of Maryland, No. 30, September Term 2021.