ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now a story about justice and the passage of time. It's about a mass release of people sentenced to life in prison in the state of Maryland decades ago.
KARRIEM SALEEM EL-AMIN: My name is Karriem Saleem El-Amin (ph). I went to prison when I was 18, in 1971. I didn't come out of prison after I served 42 years, three months and three days - 2013.
SIEGEL: Karriem Saleem El-Amin killed a Baltimore grocer, David Lermer (ph), during a stick up. When Saleem went in, he was a teenaged killer named William Collins (ph). Now, he's back in the city of his youth, converted to Islam, subdued by age and often baffled by the experience of freedom.
EL-AMIN: I'm at a restaurant. You know, I was sitting there, and I ate a nice lobster and I ate the biscuits, and I'm full. I'm enjoying my company of my family. And at some time - I guess maybe 30, 40 minutes had passed - I'm feeling uneasy because I'm so used to having the man telling me it's time to go. I didn't get that at the restaurant.
SIEGEL: Saleem is one of more than 130 lifers in the state of Maryland who were released on probation following a landmark ruling by the state's highest court. None of them has re-offended. Their return to life on the outside has encouraged advocates of more liberal parole policies. It has infuriated the families of their victims, and it has raised questions about what a life sentence really means. Second Chance is a Baltimore nonprofit with a huge warehouse store full of building materials, home furnishings, hardware. It's all recycled from buildings that have been demolished or refurbished. This is where Karriem Saleem El-Amin works.
EL-AMIN: These are the parts that goes on doors, but it's like porcelain and stuff that you normally don't find on doors today because everything is plastic.
SIEGEL: Second Chance specializes in hiring people with employment obstacles, people like Saleem.
EL-AMIN: I work in the receiving department. And I'm kind of happy to say every little item come in here practically since I been working I get a chance to touch. So I kind of like walk through sometimes. I see how people be looking and stuff, and I remember how I shined that light. You know, little stuff that might insignificant to others, but it has meaning to me.
SIEGEL: All the lifers who've been released recently were convicted at least 35 years ago. They aged behind bars. Their bodies that used to brawl and run now ache and strain.
EL-AMIN: Health care is major with us. At one time, I wouldn't even consider it. You know, play basketball from the sun up to the sundown in the dark, in the snow - it didn't matter. But when you mature and you see that your knees ain't like that no more, you're getting aches from places you didn't even stretch. But it's just that time. Father time steps in, and you have to make the adjustments.
SIEGEL: Over 40 years, Saleem's body may have weakened, but he says he's a stronger person. About 15 years into his sentence, he says, he decided to turn his life around.
EL-AMIN: I don't actually, really believe I became a man until I was 32 years old. And I only credit that number because I remember being on lockup and really taking an honest self-appraisal of myself. I mean, you reach a point in time when you done made all the changes you going to make in your life, and it's almost like the fruit getting ripe. Once you get to a certain point, we're getting ready to go into the stage of being rotten.
SIEGEL: The Maryland convicts who've been released were all convicted of felonies in jury trials before 1981. They're out because of a strange instruction that Maryland judges were required to give to juries until that year. Tony Gioia is deputy state's attorney for Baltimore city.
TONY GIOIA: Every judge in every criminal trial in this state at the end of the case instructed the jury that they were the judges of the facts and the law and that whatever the court said to the jury about the law was advisory only.
SIEGEL: That's right. The jurors were judges of the law, and what the judge said was just advisory. That may contradict everything you've ever learned about what juries do and what judges do, but that is what judges in Maryland did for decades. Michael Millemann, a law professor at the University of Maryland, read to me from a typical to trial transcript from before 1981. This was from the judge's instruction to the jurors.
MICHAEL MILLEMANN: (Reading) You, ladies and gentlemen, are the judges of not only the facts, as you are in every case, but on the law as well. It is your responsibility to determine for yourselves what the law is. Everything I say to you is advisory only. You are free to find the law to be other than as the court says it is. And counsel are permitted to argue that they disagree with the law as well. We are giving you our best opinion about the matter, but the final determination about of it is solely in your hands.
SIEGEL: So if I'm a juror and I hear that and I say, you know, I think that defendant - if he was innocent, he would have testified during the trial. He didn't. He must be guilty.
SIEGEL: I can use that reasoning because I can make up the law?
MILLEMANN: There's nothing in the instruction that precludes a juror from reaching that conclusion.
SIEGEL: The presumption of innocence, the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt - principles that we're accustomed to hearing judges tell us are the law that we as jurors must apply. In Maryland through 1980, all that was just advice from the bench. Take it or leave it.
MILLEMANN: This was the only state in the country by 1980 that was giving such instruction.
SIEGEL: In the early '80s, Maryland's highest court put a stop to it. As prosecutor Tony Gioia says, judges no longer gave juries mere advice.
GIOIA: One word changed from advisory to binding.
SIEGEL: The jury instructions changed, but for more than 30 years in various cases, the Court of Appeals said that even if you were convicted in an old trial where judges told jurors that they could decide the law, your conviction still held. Well then, in 2012, in a case brought by a Maryland inmate called Unger v. State, the court changed its position. It said that people convicted on the basis of the old jury charge had been denied due process, and they were entitled to a new trial. There were 250 such people, and one of them was Karriem Saleem El-Amin.
EL-AMIN: So it was, like, relief. Oh man, all I got to do is get myself ready, prepare myself for freedom now. It's really going to be real this time. And everybody was hopeful, communicating with everybody to make sure everybody was on the same page. You know, prepare yourself, man. You're going to court. You're going home. That's what people was telling each other.
SIEGEL: Obviously, anyone still in prison in 2012 for a conviction prior to 1981 was serving a very long sentence for a very serious crime. Of the 250, all but one were male. Law professor Michael Millemann says they typically went in at age 24 and served 40 years.
MILLEMANN: And they're 90 percent African-American, although the homicide statistics back in the '60s showed more of an even balance of the race of people who were accused of homicide.
SIEGEL: Millemann, who has a long background in legal aid and advocacy for prisoners says that, 40 years ago, blacks were often charged with more serious offenses than whites for the same crime. Some of the men covered by the Unger decision were retried, and some are still awaiting a new trial. But for most of the city of Baltimore's large share of those cases, the two lawyers we've just heard, law professor Mike Millemann and prosecutor Tony Gioia, sat down to negotiate the terms of their release. The prisoners would have to concede their guilt, abandon further appeals and be resentenced to time served. They would be released on probation only after there was a plan for where they would live. One violation of probation, and it's back to prison with no chance to get out. Prosecutor Tony Gioia.
GIOIA: We have not had a probation violation yet in any of these cases. And I think the key to that is the state public defender's office has hired social workers to help ease the transition - an enormous transition - somebody who's lost their freedom and been out of society for a minimum of 34 years, some up to close to 50 years.
REBECCA BOWMAN-RIVAS: Just to start out with a few announcements - I know I've touched base with everybody briefly.
SIEGEL: This is a weekly meeting of social workers, social work students and interns. Some are from the public defender's office. The others are from the University of Maryland - 10 people in all.
BOWMAN-RIVAS: Right now I have seven possibilities in the city.
SIEGEL: When the prosecutor's office says someone is ready to get out, they have to have a release plan. That means somewhere to live. Rebecca Bowman-Rivas, who runs the social work clinic at the University of Maryland Law School, says some families are remarkably well prepared to care for the new arrival.
BOWMAN-RIVAS: On the other hand, there's also a lot of folks who outlive their families, including their children. We have several individuals whose family members died of HIV/AIDS-related causes. We have 80-some-year-old gentleman who outlived his entire family.
SIEGEL: For many, she says, the emotional blow of that kind of loss only hits after release.
BOWMAN-RIVAS: We see a lot of delayed grief. When you're in prison, you don't - it's not really a safe place to deal with emotional issues, so we have a lot of folks who lost their parents while they were incarcerated - or siblings. And when they get out, it's - is when it really starts to come back to them - or when they go and see the grave site for the first time - they start to realize how much they've missed.
SIEGEL: And they have serious material needs. They need housing, clothing, bus passes, telephones and information on where to get food. Social worker Rebecca Bowman-Rivas says some need help establishing who they are. Some change their names. Others never had government ID.
BOWMAN-RIVAS: We had one gentleman who found out that he had a completely different father and a different name on his birth certificate. We've seen a few where there was no name. It just said baby.
SIEGEL: There's also Rip Van Winkle effect. People incarcerated for decades can be thrown by the sight of pedestrians speaking on Bluetooth while walking alone and buses that bend at the middle. Karriem Saleem El-Amin says things amazed him when he got out.
EL-AMIN: Like the bathrooms, you know? I go to the bathroom, and I'm looking around for the flusher - ain't none. I'm wondering, like, I can't leave here now in this type of shape, you know what I mean? I didn't know that all you had to do was leave. The sensory system was in effect, and I said, wow, this is - we come a long way.
SIEGEL: With the support they get from social workers, from employers and from each other and given their advanced years, the lifers released in Maryland have a perfect record so far. No one has re-offended. Tomorrow, we'll hear from people who say they're unimpressed with the perfect probation record of the men freed under the Unger decision - families of the murder victims.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This man was released from a sentence of life in prison plus 36 years, and they released them? Shame on them. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Karriem Saleem El-Amin was convicted of first-degree felony murder. The evidence at trial showed that he was armed during the robbery in which David Lermer was murdered. But there was no evidence that he fired the fatal shot.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.