Last week Maryland’s Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Daniel Carter, et. al. v. State of Maryland addressing challenges to its system for possible parole for juvenile offenders serving life sentences. By a 4-3 vote the Court upheld Maryland’s system.
The majority opinion explains that the Court was considering the cases of three juveniles, two aged 15 and 17 at the time of their crimes who were given life sentences with the possibility of parole, and third who was given a sentence of 100 years with 50 to be served before he was parole eligible. It considered and relied on an executive order issued by Governor Hogan a few days after the Court heard oral argument on these appeals from the denial of motions claiming that the defendants had received illegal sentences.
That opinion reviewed the history of Supreme Court cases that first found the death penalty for offenders who were juveniles when they committed their crimes as “cruel and unusual punishment” under the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and later held that life without parole for juveniles was also unconstitutional except for murderers found at sentencing to be incorrigible. It explained Maryland’s parole system, under which the Parole Commission reviews life sentences and can make a recommendation for parole for a juvenile offender with a life sentence, including consideration of such things as the age of the offender when the crime occurred, his or her maturity at the time, family background, and evidence of rehabilitation.
The majority upheld this system for the two life sentences, even though the Governor has discretion to not follow the Commission’s recommendation for parole, because the Executive Order provides that the Governor shall consider the same factors as the Commission and give written explanation should he decline to follow a parole recommendation. It held, however, that the 100 year sentence was effectively the same as life without parole and unconstitutional. The dissenting opinion argued that Maryland’s system does not pass constitutional muster, without some standard to guide the Commission or Governor in how to consider and weigh factors such as home life and environment of the offender. Without such standards, the dissenting opinion calls this possibility of parole “an empty promise.”
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.