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Hartless v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

May 30, 2019


          Circuit Court for Howard County Case No. 13-K-87-017022

          Berger, Arthur, Beachley, JJ.


          Berger, J.

         This case is before us on appeal from an order of the circuit court denying the motion to correct an illegal sentence filed by David Andrew Hartless, appellant. In 1989, Hartless was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder, robbery with a deadly weapon, and lesser-included offenses. He was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder and twenty years' imprisonment for robbery with a deadly weapon. His convictions were affirmed on direct appeal. Hartless v. State, 327 Md. 558, 560 (1992). Hartless was seventeen years old when he committed the crimes.

         Following the decisions of the United States Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, __U.S.__, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), Hartless filed a motion to correct what he alleged to be an illegal sentence. Hartless asserted that his sentence was unconstitutional pursuant to recent Supreme Court precedent addressing life sentences without parole for juvenile homicide offenders. The circuit court denied Hartless' motion.

         Hartless noted a timely appeal. This Court stayed Hartless' appeal pending the decision of the Court of Appeals in Carter v. State, No. 54, Sept. Term, 2017; Bowie v. State, No. 55, Sept. Term 2017; and McCullough v. State, No. 56, Sept. Term, 2017, because the cases raised issues relating to whether a life sentence with the possibility of parole or a lengthy term of years sentence constituted an unconstitutional de facto life without parole sentence. On August 29, 2018, the Court of Appeals issued an opinion in Carter v. State, 461 Md. 295 (2018), reconsideration denied, October 4, 2018. The Court's consolidated opinion resolved the cases of Carter, Bowie, and McCullough. Following the issuance of the Carter opinion, we lifted the stay in Hartless' appeal and the appeal proceeded. In this appeal, Hartless presents three issues for our consideration, which we set forth verbatim:

1. What is the scope of Carter's requirement that all juvenile offenders are entitled to an individualized sentencing hearing that takes into account the offender's youth, and based on Carter's interpretation of this requirement, did the circuit court err in determining that Mr. Hartless' life plus twenty year sentence, imposed without an individualized sentencing, was legal?
2. Presenting an issue that was not ruled upon in Carter, did the circuit court err in not finding Mr. Hartless' life sentence illegal since the statutes and regulations governing the Maryland parole system authorize the Parole Commission to divert any parole application to a request for executive clemency?
3. An argument raised for preservation purposes, is the Court of Appeals' decision in Carter in contravention with Supreme Court precedent in Miller and Montgomery, which held that a non-incorrigible juvenile offender has a substantive right to release upon a showing of demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation?

         With respect to the first issue raised by Hartless, for reasons we shall explain, we reject Hartless' premise that Carter requires an individualized sentencing hearing that takes into account the offender's youth for all juvenile homicide offenders. We shall further hold that the availability of executive clemency as an alternative to parole does not render Hartless' sentence unconstitutional. For reasons we shall explain, we do not address the merits of the third issue. We shall affirm.


         We set forth briefly the factual background underlying this appeal. The underlying murder occurred in 1987 when Hartless was seventeen years old. Hartless entered a convenience store in Columbia, Maryland, intending to rob the store. A twenty-year-old store clerk, Angelica Velazco, was alone in the store at the time. Hartless ordered Velazco to lie on the floor. Velazco complied, but Hartless smashed a bottle over her head and subsequently stabbed her to death.

         The State sought a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for Velazco's murder, but the trial court ruled that it was not an allowable sentence at the time of Hartless' crime. The circuit court subsequently sentenced Hartless to life imprisonment for murder. Defense counsel acknowledged that the court was obligated to impose a life sentence for the murder conviction but asked the court to issue a concurrent sentence for the robbery. Defense counsel specifically pointed to Hartless' age at the time of the offense, Hartless' difficult childhood circumstances, and the corrosive influence of Hartless' stepfather, Leo Rites. Defense counsel also asked for Hartless to be sent to the Patuxent Institution where he would be able to receive psychiatric care and treatment.

         The circuit court imposed the mandatory life sentence for the first-degree murder conviction and a consecutive twenty-year term of imprisonment for robbery with a deadly weapon. The court noted Hartless' age at the time the crime was committed but emphasized that Hartless had committed the "ultimate crime" in a "rather vicious" manner and emphasized that the victim was "rather young." The circuit court expressly commented that it was "fully cognizant of the various psychological and psychiatric reports."

         On January 23, 2017, Hartless filed the motion to correct illegal sentence pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-345(a) that ultimately gave rise to this appeal. He argued that his sentence was illegal based upon the United States Supreme Court cases of Miller, supra, 567 U.S. 460, and Montgomery, supra, 136 S.Ct. 718. We shall discuss these cases in further detail infra, but it is helpful to set forth the holdings of each case here in order to provide context for Hartless' motion. In Miller, the Court held that "mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments.'" 567 U.S. at 465.

         The Montgomery Court held that Miller announced a new substantive rule that applies retroactively to convictions that were final prior to the Miller decision. 136 S.Ct. at 736. The Montgomery Court explained that Miller "requires a sentencer to consider a juvenile offender's youth and attendant characteristics before determining that life without parole is a proportionate sentence." Id. at 734. The Court further explained that Miller "determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but 'the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.'" Id. (quoting Miller, 567 U.S. at 479-80).[1]

         Against this backdrop, Hartless filed a motion to correct what he alleged to be an illegal sentence, arguing that his sentence was unconstitutional as a de facto sentence of life without parole. Hartless asserted that a sentence of life with parole is effectively equivalent to life without parole in Maryland because there is no "meaningful opportunity to obtain release" for individuals sentenced to life with parole. Hartless contended that the circuit court had not considered the factors set forth in Miller, supra, before sentencing him to what was effectively a sentence of life without parole, and, therefore, the circuit court's sentence was illegal.

         The circuit court, in a written order, observed that there was "not yet precedent" on the constitutionality of Hartless' life sentence with parole. The circuit court observed that Hartless had an upcoming parole hearing and had "not yet been denied parole." The court found Hartless' motion to be "premature" and denied the motion without prejudice.

         Hartless noted a timely appeal to this Court. The appeal was stayed pending the Court of Appeals' decision in Carter, Bowie, and McCullough, supra, which presented the same theory underlying Hartless' motion and argued that a life sentence in Maryland "is effectively . . . life without parole, because the laws governing parole in Maryland do not provide [an inmate] with a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." Carter, supra, 461 Md. at 307. The Court of Appeals rejected this theory, holding in Carter that the petitioners' life sentences were legal because "the laws governing parole of inmates serving life sentences in Maryland, including the parole statute, regulations, and a recent executive order adopted by ...

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