More than 100 family, friends and supporters gathered at Maryland Carey Law to celebrate the fourth anniversary of prisoner releases prompted by the Unger decision, an historic ruling from Maryland’s highest court. The court found that some 230 elderly, incarcerated men and a woman had received unfair trials. Approximately 170 of them—with an average age of 63 and 39 years of incarceration—have since won probation.
“Tonight has been years in the making,” said Dean Donald Tobin. “We believe in the quest of the Unger clients for access to justice. We are honored to help and incredibly proud of the many people at the law school who have worked with the Office of the Public Defender on their behalf.”
Until 1981, every judge in a criminal trial in Maryland instructed jurors that what the court said about the law was merely advisory; jurors were allowed to disregard what the judges said and apply their own rules. All that changed in 2012, however, when the Maryland Court of Appeals found in Unger v. State that the instructions violated the basic rules in criminal cases, including that defendants are presumed to be innocent and that the state must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
That is when the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and the law school’s Clinical Law Program, working with the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, began negotiating the releases of the Unger clients. In the several years that followed, prosecutors across the state joined in. Only a few of the 230 affected prisoners have had new trials. The overwhelming majority have accepted agreements that have released them on probation.
“So far, none of the 170 released has been convicted of a new crime other than a traffic or driving offense, and none of the probations have been revoked,” said Professor Michael Millemann, who led the Clinic’s work on the Unger cases.
During the four years since the court’s decision, the law school’s interdisciplinary team has also included Professor Jerome Deise; A.J. Bellido de Luna, then managing director of the school’s Clinical Law Program; social workers Rebecca Bowman-Rivas, Elizabeth Smith and Angela Aloi; and more than 80 law and social work students.
“The heroines of our team have been the social workers and students,” said Professor Millemann. “They have provided essential post-release services to more than 130 of those released.” Social workers create a release plan for every Unger client, who is usually an elderly African American male needing housing, clothes, transportation, and food. Some need jobs and many need medical care.
“We’re trying to create a community,” Rebecca Bowman-Rivas, who leads the law school’s social work team, told The Baltimore Sun. “These guys are going through something that really no one else can truly understand.”
“That sense of community is a major reason for the remarkable success of the 170 to date,” Millemann said, and it was evident in the fourth anniversary celebration.