BALTIMORE — Together, the four men sitting handcuffed in a Baltimore courtroom had spent 151 years in prison.
Nicholas Marshall-Bey: 34 years on a murder conviction. Salim Sadiki: 37 years after being found guilty of rape. Michael Person: 39 years in the slaying of a bartender. Hercules Williams: 41 years in the death of a man in his living room.
Yet after a short hearing earlier this month, the men did something that once would have seemed impossible. They walked out of the courthouse as free men and stood on a city street, hugging family and wiping away tears.
The men were released after Maryland’s highest court decided judges had given improper instructions to juries that heard the men’s cases decades ago, making them fundamentally flawed. The same faulty instructions have now freed approximately 50 people statewide, and some 200 prisoners could ultimately be released from Maryland prisons.
‘‘I’m not going to let you down,’’ Person told his attorney, Brian Saccenti of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, moments after walking out of the courthouse. ‘‘I just want to do the right thing.’’
The state’s highest court ruled last year that before 1980, judges around the state gave juries instructions that failed to clearly explain in part that prosecutors have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. As a result of the court’s so-called Unger decision, anyone who was tried by a jury before 1980 could get a new trial.
But given the length of time that’s passed, that’s tough. Witnesses have moved or died. Evidence has been destroyed. As a result, some counties have agreed to forgo new trials and grant some prisoners freedom in exchange for the commitment to be on probation.
‘‘I’ve been billing this as the largest and most important case in the history of Maryland post-conviction law,’’ said Becky Feldman, an attorney with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, which is helping prisoners affected by the decision statewide.
The majority of the cases the office is handling are in Baltimore, which has about 100 cases and has so far freed close to 40 prisoners, most of them serving time on murder convictions. The ruling doesn’t affect Maryland’s five death row inmates because they were convicted after 1980.
The city’s head prosecutor, State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, said his office is reviewing the cases individually as part of a ‘‘deliberate, thoughtful, comprehensive’’ process that weighs whether they can be retried along with what threat the prisoner might pose to public safety.
Prisoners who have been let go said they appreciate the second chance and that they’ve changed since being imprisoned decades ago. Kareem Hasan, who went to prison at 17 in the fatal shooting of a man during a robbery, was one of the first prisoners to be released in May. Hasan, 55, has since gotten a job working at a wastewater treatment plant and is saving money to buy a car. He says he and others want a ‘‘chance to show we’re not animals’’ and ‘‘prove our worth.’’
Karriem Saleem El-Amin, who was 18 when he went to prison for his role in a grocery store robbery in which two people died, including one of his accomplices, was released in July and now works at a bakery. El-Amin, 60, said he hopes the victims of his crime and others can forgive. ‘‘I want them to know that I’m not that guy that I was,’’ he said during an interview at the University of Maryland’s law school, which has been helping many of the people affected by the decision with their transition back to society.
Not everyone supports the prisoners’ release, however, including some victims’ families.
Kevin Magrogan, a retired policeman whose older brother was killed in 1971, said he wanted prosecutors to retry the case but felt they didn’t because of the expense. And Karen Wilson, whose father was murdered in 1969 by a tenant who lived above his Baltimore restaurant, said she felt sick when she learned earlier this year that he would be freed.
‘‘I felt like I lost my father all over again,’’ said Wilson, who was 13 when her father was murdered and asked to be referred to by her maiden name.
Many of the prisoners being released once had hopes of getting out sooner. When they were given life sentences, the practice was to grant parole after about 20 years, said University of Maryland law professor Michael Millemann, who has been representing some of the defendants. But in 1993 a life-sentenced prisoner on work release killed his estranged girlfriend and then himself, and Maryland Governor Parris Glendening later announced that anyone with a life sentence would die in prison.
Now, Millemann said, many of the people affected by the Unger ruling are elderly and have health problems. At least two defendants were brought to court in wheelchairs, another on a gurney. Others are struggling with diabetes, arthritis, and Hepatitis C.