Constitutionality of Life Without Parole Sentence is Challenged

In 2013, Maryland revoked the death penalty. That may have been because trials are imperfect, and thus, the possibility of taking an innocent person’s life is too great a risk. That left Maryland’s highest penalty being life without parole.

But with the change came a new problem—unlike there was with the death penalty, there are few standards that a judge or jury need to abide by to sentence someone to life. This potentially leaves what is known as the second most severe penalty in our American justice system to chance, risking inconsistent standards and uncertainty in sentencing.

Bill Seeks to Create Standards

A new bill in the Maryland assembly proposes to apply the standards that were once used for the death penalty, to life without parole. The bill would require, in order to be sentenced to life, that the defendant be convicted of first-degree murder, or as an accomplice to first degree murder of a law enforcement officer. “Accomplice” generally means that the defendant was present at the scene of the murder and was a participant in the murder.

Additionally, the law would require biological evidence, a videotaped confession or a video that conclusively links the defendant to the murder.

The law would also require the jury to sentence the defendant to life without parole—not the judge.

Appeals Court Hearing the Same Issues

But most legislators do not expect the law to make it out of committee, meaning it will not become law anytime soon. One reason is that the Maryland appeals court is currently considering a group of cases that deal with the exact same issue.

In those cases, attorneys for defendants are arguing that life without parole and the death penalty are almost identical, since in both, the defendant dies in prison. Both sentences are legally considered “heightened sentences.”

Despite the similarities, attorneys argue, life sentences do not require the same standards. In seeking life sentences, prosecutors can use their own judgment to determine whether to ask for life-there is not a certain kind of crime or scenario or factual finding that needs to exist in order to ask for the sentence. This is a highly subjective parameter. Furthermore, judges—not juries, as in death penalty cases—can impose a life sentence.

Attorneys argue that given the similarities of the two sentences, the parameters and procedures should be the same. The failure to have such parameters for life sentences is a violation of defendant’s’ constitutional due process rights, attorneys suggest. The appellate court has not ruled on the issue.

Bill May Still Pass

Governments can always provide more protections than the constitution requires. That means that even if the appellate court declares the parameters to sentence a defendant to life are in fact constitutional, it would not stop a law from being passed to bring the parameters for life in line with the former parameters for imposing the death sentence.

Legislators have indicated that if the appellate court does not rule their way, they will try to resubmit the law at the next legislative session.

From arrest to trial to sentencing, make sure your attorneys understand what the government can and can not do.  Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights in the criminal justice system.