In 1976, Merle Unger was convicted of felony murder in the State of Maryland. However, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in May 2012 that the jury had been given improper instructions during the initial trial – a decision that led to release of 20 prisoners and could affect up to 200 cases statewide.
The jury in Unger’s initial trial was instructed by the judge to “feel free to reject my advice on the law and to arrive and your own independent conclusions.” By relegating the court’s instruction to advisory status, the judge infringed on the defendant’s right to due process, his attorneys argued in the appeal.
"How, consistent with our most basic constitutional values, could we have convicted and incarcerated these men for three, four or five decades based on trials in which judges told juries to make up their own legal rules?" questioned Mike Millemann, Jacob A. France Professor of Public Interest Law, in a Baltimore Sun op-ed.
Millemann, along with the school’s Law & Social Work Services Program, directed by Rebecca Bowman-Rivas, has been working with the Office of the Public Defender to identify the affected prisoners; they have painstakingly gathered case records, some over three decades old. Twenty students in the spring and 10 students over the summer worked on these cases.
“At the end of the day, this project forces the State to obey the rule of law and teaches students how to do this,” said A.J. Bellido de Luna, managing Director of the law school’s Clinical Law Program and co-supervisor of the summer students.
“This has been the most important law reform project, and has been one of the most fulfilling experiences, of my career, and it has reunited me with the leaders of the Office of Public Defender, where I began my career,” added Professor Jerry Deise
Millemann and Deise co-teach “Criminal Law Reform: Legal Theory and Practice,” in which students represent prisoners affected by the ruling who must petition the court for their release and may be retried at the request of state prosecutors. Others who are released without retrial were either eligible for parole or considered to be not a threat to public safety.
“Some of the inmates who are being released because of the court's ruling are in their 60s and 70s, and Marylanders might be surprised to learn that we really keep guys behind bars at those advanced ages,” wrote columnist and WYPR-FM host Dan Rodricks in the Baltimore Sun.
“They are not threats to public safety. They, for the most part, are senior citizens,” added Millemann in another Baltimore Sun article. “They’ve had exemplary prison records. They’ve demonstrated by living without violence in prison that they have rejected violence as a way of life.”
Even if release is granted, the men affected face many challenges re-entering society, where, once again, the course provides resources not offered by the state. It submits release plans, ranging from contacting family, applying for essential benefits, researching possible employment, concerns of mental and physical health, even providing information just to get a driver’s license.
“These guys are going through something that really no one else can truly understand,” Rivas told the Baltimore Sun. “So we’re trying to create a community.”