ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Think of something bad that was done to you or to your family 35, 40 years ago, something terrible. Do you ever forget? Shirley Rubin doesn't.
SHIRLEY RUBIN: I can tell you every single detail of what happened that day.
SIEGEL: The day in 1972 when she and her husband, Benjamin, were shot in a stickup at their Baltimore grocery. He was killed. She was left with a bullet lodged in her hip. Four decades later, she learned that the man convicted of the crime was getting out of prison.
RUBIN: They released him, and that's an injustice. That's an injustice to me.
SIEGEL: His release on probation and that of more than 130 other Maryland convicts was part of a settlement. They'd all been convicted before 1981. The state's highest court rules that the way judges used to instruct Maryland juries violated the defendants' due process. It was called the Unger decision. These men - and all but one of them are men - had spent, on average, 40 years in prison. Many say they changed over that time. William Gardner went to prison in 1968 for killing Baltimore cabdriver Henry Kravetz.
WILLIAM GARDNER: I went in there 16, and I didn't even want any - I didn't want nobody to tell me nothing. I didn't want to hear nothing. I definitely had a chip on my shoulder, so I made some bad choices and bad decisions all the way up until the '80s. It was a counselor told me - say, you're wasting your life, you know? It's not over. And he - I heard him. I mean, a lot of people have said things like that to me not listening, but this time, I heard him.
SIEGEL: In Baltimore, before prisoners covered by the Unger decision get out, prosecutor Tony Gioia has to decide against retrying them, and he has to see that there's a plan for where they'll live. There's a team of social workers devoted to doing that. In fact, of 132 people released under the Unger decision, not one has re-offended. Before each release, Gioia or someone else at the State Attorney's Office has to call people like Shirley Rubin and tell them the news.
TONY GIOIA: I can't describe how hard that is to make that call when you can locate a wife or a son or a daughter of a victim and try to explain what is inexplicable. That is the Unger decision. It doesn't - that has not gotten any easier since early 2013 when this process was put in place.
SIEGEL: Karen Wilson got the Unger call from a woman in Tony Gioia's office. It was about the man convicted of killing her father, restaurant owner Joseph Wilson, in 1969.
KAREN WILSON: She spoke for about 10 minutes, and I finally said, listen; let me interrupt you. Are you trying to tell me he's getting out of prison? And she said yes.
SIEGEL: Wilson is Karen's maiden name. Respecting her request for privacy, we're not using her married name. It was as Karen Wilson that she attended a hearing prior to the release of her father's killer. She told him of the devastation he'd caused her family, her mother's subsequent poverty, her sister's dissent into depression and suicide. Karen understood that her victim's impact statement would have no bearing on the hearing. The man was getting out. As a Christian whose faith has deepened in recent years, she says she's forgiven him. His release from prison is something else.
WILSON: I think every last one of these people should still be in prison. They're still guilty. I don't care about the jury instruction. I don't believe that was an issue at all. I've served on juries, and none of the jury instructions made any sense to me. So I think the average person doesn't understand their jury instructions.
SIEGEL: Hello, Mrs. Rubin.
I visited Shirley Rubin at her home in Baltimore. She's now 92, and the shooting more than 40 years ago is still a vivid memory. She and her husband were shot in the robbery, she says, even though they put up no resistance.
RUBIN: My husband was killed for no reason at all. I'm walking around with a bullet in my hip, and here's the scar where the bullet went through first. You don't forget.
SIEGEL: When the gunman was sentenced, Shirley Rubin was confident he'd be locked up until he died.
RUBIN: This man was released from a sentence of life in prison plus 36 years, and they released him. Shame on them.
SIEGEL: Obviously you're angry about this.
RUBIN: Angry - my husband missed everything. He missed all his grandchildren. He missed his great-grandchildren. And I don't care what the case of Unger was. It had nothing to do with this. The man committed a terrible crime, and he should have been punished for the rest of his life.
SIEGEL: So much time has passed since the crimes covered by Maryland's Unger decision that the way we think about sentencing has changed dramatically. Back then, as both prosecutors and defenders told us, a life sentence in Maryland typically meant go to prison; stay out of trouble; take part in prison programs, and you'll be out on parole in 20 years.
GARDNER: This is where it all starts - the receiving. The trucks come in. Stuff come on the floor.
SIEGEL: This is Second Chance, a Baltimore warehouse store run by a nonprofit. Some of the workers have come from prison, these days under the Unger ruling. This is where William Gardner works. When he came home last year after 46 years in prison, Baltimore was experiencing riots over the death of a suspect in police custody.
GARDNER: I went in right after the summer of '68, so one of the last things I seen going in was the '68 riots when Martin Luther King got killed. So it was, like, deja vu coming home, you know - and on heels of that.
SIEGEL: Gardner and the others went to prison so long ago they experienced the old state policy on incarceration.
GARDNER: Especially when we first got in there. It was a lot of emphasis on rehabilitation, so we had opportunity to go to school, college, obtain trades. But at the end, the money that they invested in the rehabilitation - it kind of got lost.
SIEGEL: Even with a life sentence, it was assumed that a prisoner should prepare for a life outside. By the mid-1990s, all that changed. A Maryland convict committed a murder while on work release. The governor canceled those programs and blocked parole for all prisoners serving life. The slogan of the day was life means life. Some of the prisoners who've gotten out during the past three years, the so-called Unger guys, had recommendations for parole. They had jobs on the outside. They had weekend furloughs 25 years ago. Then all that ended. Their life sentences turned literal until the reprieve afforded by the Unger decision.
Why have these lifers left prison without reoffending? One answer is the Maryland prisoners who've been released were always good candidates for parole. Also, this group has benefited from the social workers on their case, and you could say they're just old. Sixty-year-olds don't hold up convenience stores. Professor Michael Millemann of the University of Maryland, the man who negotiated the release deal with the deputy state's attorney, sees lessons for the treatment of aging livers elsewhere.
MICHAEL MILLEMANN: As we sit and have this conversation today - knock on wood - none of them have been convicted of a new crime.
SIEGEL: Not a shoplifting offense (inaudible).
MILLEMANN: Not shoplifting offense, no convictions, and none of them has been found to have violated a single condition of probation in the whole group. That tells us a lot about the ability of the state of Maryland and other states across this country to take older prisoners out of prison and safely parole them, particularly if you provide the kind of services that we're providing through the social work component.
SIEGEL: The freedom of the Unger guys may never be accepted by the people whose lives they shattered, but so far, they've demonstrated that they can walk the straight and narrow provided they have some help.
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