Monday, October 17, 2016
Many readers have asked me whether the Supreme Court's opinion in Miller v. Alabama means that Adnan Syed's life sentence is unconstitutional. In Miller, the Supreme Court held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, and many jurisdictions, including South Carolina, have read Miller even more broadly. The problem for Adnan, however, was that he was technically given a life sentence with the possibility of parole, making Miller inapplicable. I say "technically," however, because Parris Glendening, the governor of Maryland in the 1990s and early 2000s, "effectively stopped all parole possibilities for criminals serving life sentences." So, should sentences like the one given to Adnan be treated as the functional equivalent of a sentence of life without parole, which could render it unconstitutional? That's the claim in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Maryland against Governor Larry Hogan and other officials, and the question is whether the State's latest response is sincere or subterfuge.
Back in April,
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state's parole system for juveniles sentenced to life in prison, alleging that the current setup is unconstitutional because youths don't have a meaningful chance for release.
More than 200 people are serving parole-eligible life sentences in Maryland for crimes committed as juveniles — but no juvenile lifer in the state has been paroled in the past two decades, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Then, last week,
The Maryland Parole Commission says it plans to hold hearings within the next year for nearly 300 inmates who were sentenced to life for crimes they committed as juveniles.
The state's plan is contained in new filings as part of a federal court case that alleges Maryland's parole system is unconstitutional because juvenile lifers have not had a realistic opportunity for release. Attorneys for the state argued this week in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit that it's moot because of the planned hearings and other changes.
On paper, this sounds great, and it means that juvenile lifers like Adnan* will get parole hearings to determine their eligibility for early release. But the ACLU is skeptical.
A lawyer for the ACLU called the state's plan to hold the hearings a "red herring."
"From our perspective, it's a fairly obvious attempt to offer superficial changes," said Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney for the organization. "The question has never been whether or not people get hearings. It's about whether those hearings serve any meaningful purpose."
The State responded as follows:
"We believe this resolves the concerns regarding parole consideration for offenders who were juveniles when they committed their crimes," Gerry Shields, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in an email. "It meets the requirements set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court to provide those offenders with the opportunity to be considered for parole."
So, which side has it right? Only time will tell.
*Of course, this could all be moot for Adnan if the order granting him a new trial is upheld.