April 23, 2024

Venable Pro Bono Team Achieves Prisoner Release Under DC's Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act

5 min

In 1996, members of Maryland's Rushtown Crew shot and killed two brothers, aged 12 and 19, in their front yard in DC. Antonio Marks, a member of the Rushtown Crew who was convicted of participating in the shooting, was also 19. Two years later a district judge sentenced him to 70 years to life in prison. At the time of the sentencing, the Washington Post reported that Marks "just might be eligible for parole if [he lives into his] eighties."

While Marks was in prison, the U.S. Supreme Court decided several cases that reconsidered the role of brain development in youthful decision-making. Those cases led the DC Council in 2016 to pass the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA), which allowed inmates 17 or under at the time of the crime to petition for a reduced prison sentence. In 2021, the DC Council expanded the IRAA, raising the age of eligibility from 17 to 24 at the time of the crime. Eligible inmates must have served at least 15 years of their sentence and demonstrate that they are fully rehabilitated.

In early 2021, after the expansion of the IRAA, Venable attorneys, including partner Julia Tama and associate Becky Steephenson, began interviewing inmates to determine if they were eligible to petition the DC Superior Court to have their sentences reviewed. The firm took on several clients to represent in their IRAA motions under the expanded law, including Antonio Marks.

During his 26-year incarceration, Marks obtained his GED, took undergraduate courses, and acquired more than 1,500 hours of vocational training. He served as a member of the Suicide Watch Program, maintained steady employment in prison jobs, and became a mentor and spiritual leader to other inmates. In prison, where every aspect of Marks's life was regulated, he had just two disciplinary infractions in 26 years and none in the past 10 years.

The team hired a mitigation specialist, Jill Steinberg, who worked under their legal guidance and helped them gather extensive details about Marks's rehabilitation and his reentry plan, as well as information on his family history and his role in the offense.

Through these efforts, the team learned that the offense followed a series of tragedies that occurred in Marks's life. Aside from his actions in 1996, Marks had no prior criminal convictions.

"A lot of the work that we did was reviewing the factors in the statute and making sure that we were collecting information to show that the client was rehabilitated and met each of the requirements in the statute for release," said Tama, a co-chair of Venable's Privacy and Data Security Group. "Any attorney at the firm, no matter their experience or practice group, could contribute to this type of pro bono matter."

After determining that Marks was eligible to petition for early release, in late 2022 the team bolstered its litigation credentials by adding partner Taylor Chapman.

Steephenson and former Venable associate Daniel Kaltman visited Marks in early 2023 to go over the motion the team drafted seeking the reduction of his sentence to time served. In April, the team filed the motion, and the government subsequently responded with a partial opposition. The government agreed that Marks was indeed rehabilitated and no longer a danger to society but thought he should serve four more years in prison before becoming eligible for parole, because of the mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years.

The Venable team argued that being eligible for parole would not reduce his sentence as contemplated by IRAA, and that the DC Council specifically stated mandatory minimums need not be followed. Most importantly, the team said, Marks was already fully rehabilitated, and four more years of incarceration were unnecessary.

Steephenson gave an oral argument in October of 2023 to support Marks's early release, and the judge granted the motion in full. Marks was released from prison on the Friday following Thanksgiving.

The Venable team contributed more than 600 pro bono hours to this case and included attorneys from three different offices and practice groups.

"It was a nice experience to work with people at the firm whose paths might not have crossed if not for the firm's pro bono program," Chapman said.

She also said that partner organizations The Second Look Project and Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia provided invaluable resources. The organizations put them in touch with an attorney who had handled dozens of similar hearings, including one with the judge assigned to Marks' case.

"Even if you're an experienced litigator, you likely have no experience with this type of proceeding," Chapman said. "The resources make it so that even somebody with only a little bit of litigation experience could get somewhat comfortable."

For Steephenson and Kaltman, both associates in the firm's IP Litigation Group at that time, this case provided a chance to take ownership over a case.

"We put on our litigator hats and wrote the most persuasive motion we could for our client, just like we would for any of our IP clients," Steephenson said. "We're not criminal defense lawyers… but we have so many great resources at the firm and outside the firm that supported us with this matter."

Kaltman, who joined Venable in October of 2022, appreciated the opportunity to work on such a meaningful matter straight out of law school. When he picked up a billable criminal matter shortly after, he drew from his pro bono experience.

"I would encourage first years to get a pro bono matter," he said. "It teaches you a lot about case management and working with partners in other offices and divisions."