I began my legal career in 1967 doing civil rights work in Louisiana. I had many extraordinary experiences there, but the one that made the deepest impression on me occurred in the Louisiana Supreme Court library. When I looked for a rest room, I found two: one for “White men” and a second for “colored men.” This was 1967, 13 years after Brown vs. Board. The letters had been taken down, but they had been up so long they had stained the wood. I learned then that making government take down racist signs did not get the racist stain out of the wood. Forty-seven years later, I am still working to do this.
Today, in partnership with the Public Defender’s Office, our clinical and social work faculty and students are representing over 50 inmates in Maryland who were convicted in the 1960s and 1970s, most of felony murder. All received life-with-parole sentences, but have never been released. Their average age is 64 and they have been locked up three to five decades.
The error in their cases was fundamental. The judges told the jurors they were “the judges of the law” and anything the judge said about the law was “advice” only, which the jurors were “free to reject.” The judges invited the lay jurors to create their own legal rules.
In 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals decided that all of the 250 or so prisoners still locked up from these 1960s and ’70s trials are entitled to new trials.
To date, 62 prisoners statewide, 50 from Baltimore City, have been released through negotiations, and almost all placed on probation. Of the 50 from the City, a shocking 98 percent – all but one – is African American. Until the early 1970s, Baltimore City was a majority White city, and African Americans certainly did not commit 98 percent of the homicides there during the 1960s and ’70s.
Indeed, racism was pervasive. When George Wallace ran in the Maryland Presidential Primary in 1964, he finished a strong second with 43 percent of the vote! His motto was “Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”
Our clients were convicted by all-White or disproportionately White juries in trials that lasted one or two days. They were represented by several lawyers who later were disbarred. Many were in fact innocent, or were guilty of a lesser degree of homicide, or never had a lawyer who argued for them at sentencing.
They grew up in prison, got GEDs and bachelor degrees, and participated in an array of prison programs. Over time, many have become peaceful and infirm senior citizens. They should have been paroled over 20 years ago, but, because Democratic governors effectively abolished parole for lifers, they were not. They pose no risk to public safety. We need to return to the long tradition of paroling lifers who earn that parole.
The extended families of the 62 never gave up on them. Social workers and social work students working with the Law School Clinic and Office of Public Defender have established a network of re-entry services for those released, and to date, there has been no recidivism.
The release of these 62 individuals is the result of hard work by many people, including the Office of the Public Defender (who has been the leader), the inmates’ families, their faith communities, social workers and re-entry non-profits, and, in many cases, courageous prosecutors who have opted to do what is right instead of what is easy.
Most striking, however, is the transformative work that these returning citizens have done for themselves. They have grown into responsible and contributing members of society.
These releases are cause for hope that with perseverance and cooperation among people of good will, we can begin to get the stain of racism out of the wood.
Michael Millemann is a law professor at the University of Maryland-Carey School of Law and a long-time civil rights lawyer.