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 that 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 as a result.
“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.