The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The life sentence he got as a teen came with a chance at parole. But is it a real chance?

Walter Maddox, assaulted and robbed in 1995, sits on his bed at an assisted living facility in La Plata, Md. The life term for the assailant, who was then 17, is part of a court challenge to Maryland parole practices. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Walter Irving Maddox was on the phone making New Year's Eve plans when he heard a knock on the door of his secluded cottage steps from the creek where he'd spent decades hauling crabs. He laid the phone on a bed.

From the other end of the line, his girlfriend heard voices. Then, sharp banging and doors slamming, followed by groans and gurgling.

The metallic sound, she would learn, was a neighborhood teenager, James E. Bowie, pummeling the 68-year-old Maddox with an aluminum baseball bat.

Bowie was a high school dropout, fueled by drugs and anger. He never intended to hurt Maddox so severely, just to subdue him while a friend grabbed the waterman's cash, he said recently.

Maddox, now 90, was never the same.

"It just destroyed his memory," said Maddox's son, who shares his father's name. "They took his life away from him, but they didn't finish the job."

Bowie was 17. He was sentenced in 1997 to life in prison with the possibility of parole — a possibility his lawyers say exists on paper but carries no real chance for release.

Maryland is one of three states, with California and Oklahoma, that requires the governor's signature to parole inmates sentenced to life. In the past two decades, no Maryland governor has signed off on a parole board recommendation to release a lifer like Bowie who committed his crime before he turned 18.

Bowie spent his 20s and 30s in prison — more time locked up than he lived on the outside.

"My life experience stopped at 17," Bowie, now 40, said in interviews from the state prison in Hagerstown, Md. "I needed to be punished for what I did and needed to have time to be corrected, but the rest of my life is overkill. I'm not the same person I was."

His case is one of four being considered this week by the state's highest court in Annapolis in a challenge to the legality of the Maryland parole system. Prison reform advocates say the system is unconstitutional because while the punishment in the cases involving juvenile offenders technically includes the chance of ­parole, the state hasn't paroled any inmate in that position in more than 20 years.

The office of Attorney General Brian E. Frosh says Bowie's sentence, for attempted murder and robbery, is legal and his challenge is premature. Bowie hasn't been recommended for parole or formally denied release by any governor.

"If they are unhappy with the way parole is implemented, their issue is with the executive branch," said Raquel Coombs, Frosh's spokeswoman.

The question for the Maryland Court of Appeals is whether a young person can be sentenced to life without what advocates say is a realistic chance of parole. The outcome of the cases could affect an estimated 300 lifers imprisoned for crimes they committed as juveniles.

Seeking a second chance for criminals serving life sentences in Maryland

In several rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited a sentence of life without parole for juveniles in all but the rarest cases, saying most juvenile offenders should have a "meaningful opportunity" to show they have matured and to be released. Juveniles are not as culpable as adults, the court has said, in part because they are more susceptible to peer pressure and to making bad decisions.

"The Supreme Court has been so clear and so forceful about how the landscape has changed," said Sonia Kumar, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. She is challenging Maryland's parole system in a separate, federal case.

"There really isn't any excuse for why Maryland is still operating the way it is and denying people who were sent to prison as kids any hope of relief no matter how thoroughly they've turned their lives around," Kumar said.

The Maryland attorney general's office says the fact that parole on life sentences is infrequent and has declined "is not proof of a constitutional violation" but rather "proof, perhaps, of changes in the way that governors and parole commissioners exercise their discretion, but nothing more."

Inmates with life sentences with the possibility of parole must serve at least 15 years before being considered for release. Parole commissioners, appointed by the governor, review records, notify victims and interview the prisoner before making a recommendation to the governor, who must act within 180 days.

In Bowie's case, the parole board recommended him for a rehearing after his first review in 2007.

Changes to the system, the attorney general's office says, must come from the legislature or the governor. But legislation to take the governor — and politics — out of the parole process, proposed again this session, has been stymied for years in part because of opposition from elected state prosecutors.

Between 1969 and 1994, three Maryland governors paroled 181 lifers.

As governor, Parris N. Glendening said in 1995 that he would sign no paroles in life-term cases, standing in front of a state prison to announce: "A life sentence means life."

Glendening says “a life sentence means life,” rejects parole for lifers

In the following two decades, court records show, none was paroled. Governors rejected recommendations on 24 lifers — juveniles and adults — without explanation.

The current governor, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), has approved parole for two adults sentenced to life. Like each governor since Glendening, he also has used separate clemency powers to reduce prison sentences and bring early release for a small number of lifers. But advocates say acts based on prerogative do not fix an unconstitutional life sentence or the parole system.

"Not only is the governor not bound by any standards or forced to consider any particular factors, but the governor is not required in any way to explain his decision," said James Johnston, director of the Youth Resentencing Project within the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, which has brought dozens of court challenges throughout the state, including in Bowie's case.

The three other cases before the appeals court this week involve crimes committed by teenagers who are serving life sentences or, in one case, a term of 100 years. They involve a 1989 home invasion in Prince George's County that resulted in three deaths; a 1999 murder in Baltimore; and a 2004 shooting outside Randallstown High School in Baltimore County that paralyzed a student.

'They tried to kill me'

The violent assault on Maddox at his home in Southern Maryland came three months after Glendening's pronouncement. Maddox was "top dog" on the water, known for building his own crab pots, for making spicy chowder and for his strong opinions, said his eldest son, Walter Irving Maddox Jr.

A family photo from a few days before the Dec. 28 attack shows Bowie with feathered blond hair, in a polo shirt, with his arm draped around his mother, who wears a red Christmas sweater. Bowie's smile belies his troubled childhood.

After his parents split up, Bowie lived with his grandmother in modest, former military housing overlooking the Potomac River. He said he had been a diligent kid, interested in music and art, but started drinking at 10, smoking marijuana at 12 and fighting in middle school to get attention. As a teen, he sold PCP to pay for limo rides and name-brand sneakers his grandmother couldn't afford, he said.

Court records, transcripts and interviews detail the night that put Bowie in prison: Three days after Christmas, Bowie was drinking and buzzing on cocaine. A friend who had worked for Maddox's fishing operation suggested robbing the waterman, who kept his cash at home and lived alone about three-quarters of a mile off a main road in Charles County.

The plan was to spray Maddox with mace at the door and quickly find his cash, which they would use to buy drugs.

Instead, Bowie hit Maddox in the head with the bat, dropping him to the floor. When Maddox tried to get up on all fours, Bowie swung and connected again, according to court records.

In all, the teens took five one-hundred-dollar bills from Maddox's wallet, the records show.

When Maddox's son, Walter Jr., arrived after getting a call from his father's landlord, there was so much blood in the entryway, he recalled recently, "it looked like someone had killed a hog in there." His father had a concussion and a fractured skull. He didn't know where he was.

"His eyes were as black as a frying pan," said his son, who vividly remembers the helicopter landing in a hayfield to take his father to the hospital.

After weeks in a trauma center and rehabilitation, Maddox was diminished physically and intellectually, said his son, a fisherman who is also a machinist at The Washington Post.

Maddox's short-term memory was shot; he talked more about his service in the military during World War II and Korea. It took him years to relearn his work on the water. Even tasks such as setting crab pots were vexing.

"We learned to work around it," said his then-girlfriend, Betty Duty, who had called 911 that night and lived with him for years after the attack.

Now 90, and in a memory-care facility in La Plata, Maddox has trouble speaking clearly and gets easily confused, including about Bowie's appeal. But when his son asked whether he remembered what happened to him that night, he was direct: "They tried to kill me. They beat the hell out of me."

At sentencing, Bowie apologized and said, "This should have never happened."

As a juvenile offender, he thought he would be out of prison in six years.

The judge acknowledged Bowie's tough childhood, easy access to drugs and the failings of the community around him not to step in and help. "There's a lot of fault, a lot of blame," the judge said.

But, he concluded, "Whether we made him this way or whether somebody else made him this way, the fact is, he is somebody who is capable of this kind of engineering and participating actively in this kind of horror."

Sentenced to life, Bowie was angry all over again. For the first six years in prison, he was known as "Jimbo Jones," for the bad-boy "Simpsons" character, fighting and using drugs, he said.

A change in attitude

A turning point came in 2003, after Bowie tested positive for heroin and was sent to solitary with no phone calls or visits for five months.

As soon as he was back on his regular wing, Bowie called his father, who had rarely visited. His father promised they'd talk — but by the next day, Bowie said, his father was dead from a mix of alcohol and painkillers he was taking after a knee surgery.

"That woke me up," Bowie said in a prison interview in late January. "Even ending up in prison didn't hit me as hard as losing my father."

He said he has found structure in the routine of his work in the prison commissary and is paid $2 a day to teach English, mostly to Latino prisoners.

At 40, Bowie describes himself as the "old head" among inmates, who tease him for never having used the Internet or social media. He takes part in a regular mentoring program for young inmates who are as emotional and irrational as he once was, steering them to avoid the mistakes he made.

"I never want to belittle what happened, because it was a horrific thing," said Bowie, whose attorney told him early on not to contact Maddox or his family to apologize directly. "But those ­decisions were made as a drug-
addled teenager who wasn't even sure who I was as a person."

In La Plata, Maddox's son isn't sure that years of prison could have helped someone like Bowie turn his life around after such a rocky start.

"It ain't the kid's fault he was brought up in a drug world," Walter Jr. said, but that doesn't mean he should be paroled. "I hate to say it, no, I don't think he should get out."

For what was done to his father, "I can't forget it," he said, tearing up. "I can't forgive it."

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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