How brother’s death shaped Feld­man’s life in law as pub­lic de­fender

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - MARYLAND - Dan Ro­dricks

Mary­land’s prison pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to fall, but it’s not get­ting any younger. Our pris­ons still house more than 3,000 in­mates older than age 50, at least 1,000 older than 60. In Novem­ber, I re­ported that at least five in­mates are older than 80, and read­ers had two re­ac­tions to that: “Fine, let them die there,” or “They’re too old to be re­leased now.”

Becky Feld­man, Mary­land’s deputy pub­lic de­fender, stepped for­ward with an an­swer to the con­cern that it would be in­hu­mane to sud­denly re­lease oc­to­ge­nar­i­ans who’ve known noth­ing but prison for most of their lives.

“It cer­tainly isn’t sim­ple and re­quires a lot of plan­ning and sup­port,” she says. “But I can say with­out reser­va­tion that it is pos­si­ble and it is worth it — even for the old­est and most in­firm.”

Feld­man prob­a­bly knows more about this than any­one.

She has worked for sev­eral years in the realm of the long­est-im­pris­oned, pro­vid­ing post-con­vic­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tion of geri­atric lif­ers, old men who went to prison decades ago for mur­der or rape.

It was Feld­man who re­cruited so­cial work­ers and at­tor­neys to work on the so-called Unger lit­i­ga­tion, named for the 2012 Mary­land Court of Ap­peals rul­ing that found a fun­da­men­tal flaw in the han­dling of dozens of crim­i­nal tri­als be­fore 1980. Nearly 200 in­mates across the state, rang­ing from 52 to 83 years of age, had their con­vic­tions erased. Rather than retry decades-old cases, prose­cu­tors struck deals to re­lease the de­fen­dants, all of whom had been in prison for at least 35 years.

Older in­mates gen­er­ally do not re­turn to crim­i­nal­ity when, or if, they get out of prison. Stud­ies have shown that. Among the Unger co­hort of 199 ex-of­fend­ers, so far only four have been ar­rested for new crimes.

Feld­man thinks it’s mis­guided to con­tinue to deny free­dom to of­fend­ers who have served 30 or 40 years, par­tic­u­larly those who have been rec­om­mended for pa­role.

Some peo­ple dis­agree, of course. I get let­ters from read­ers who think a life sen­tence should mean ex­actly that, and they pose this ques­tion: Would you want the killer of some­one you loved to ever get out of prison?

Becky Feld­man has an an­swer for that, too. And it’s per­sonal.

“I do not pro­pose to speak on be­half of all vic­tims,” she says. “But I will speak for my­self, that yes, Mary­land holds peo­ple too long.”

Feld­man had a brother named Lenny. In the win­ter of 2000, Lenny Kling came out of the Bal­ti­more County De­ten­tion Cen­ter, hav­ing spent sev­eral months and his 22nd birth­day there for vi­o­lat­ing the terms of his pro­ba­tion on a mar­i­juana dis­tri­bu­tion charge. Re­lieved to be free again, he claimed to be fin­ished with mar­i­juana sales. “I’m done,” he told fam­ily and friends. “No more.”

But Lenny did not sur­vive an­other month.

A 20-year-old guy, also a grad­u­ate of the de­ten­tion cen­ter, kept call­ing him af­ter his re­lease, of­fer­ing to get Lenny back into busi­ness. De­spite his re­luc­tance and bet­ter in­stincts, Lenny even­tu­ally agreed to buy the mar­i­juana at a ren­dezvous on a res­i­den­tial street in north­east Bal­ti­more. It turned out to be a setup.

The guy from the de­ten­tion cen­ter and an 18-year-old ac­com­plice robbed Lenny of maybe $2,000, then shot him in the head.

“I was 23 years old and in my first year of law school,” Feld­man says. “I lost my only sib­ling for the price of the money in his pocket.”

The killers were ar­rested, tried and con­victed. The teenager got a life sen­tence with all but 35 years sus­pended. The older guy got 22 years for sec­ond-de­gree mur­der.

You would think an ex­pe­ri­ence like that would make Becky Feld­man a pros­e­cu­tor rather than a pub­lic de­fender. She was en­cour­aged to go that way by Frank Ran­gous­sis, the man who pros­e­cuted her brother’s killers. While at the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more School of Law, Feld­man helped pros­e­cute cases in District Court for the Bal­ti­more County State’s At­tor­ney’s Of­fice.

“I was think­ing about it as help­ing the vic­tims and re­ally un­der­stand­ing what they were go­ing through,” she says of that as­sign­ment.

Later, while clerk­ing for a judge in Tow­son, she saw in the pa­rade of de­fen­dants her own brother. “They didn’t look like [Lenny] phys­i­cally,” she says, “but I thought, ‘There he is,’ a fool­ish kid who got into some­thing and thought he had con­trol over it, and didn’t.”

De­fen­dants, she found, seemed over­whelmed by the jus­tice sys­tem, the com­plex­ity of the law. So she de­cided to take the path into de­fense of the in­di­gent. Along the way she came to know a lot of Mary­land’s old­est in­mates, their life sto­ries and com­mon traits from child­hood: “An ab­sent par­ent, or two ab­sent par­ents. Poverty. Get­ting in­volved in drug us­age as a teenager. And prob­a­bly a men­tal health com­po­nent — not all the time, but a lot of the time.”

Paul DeWolfe, the chief pub­lic de­fender, made Feld­man his deputy in 2017, cit­ing her suc­cess in co­or­di­nat­ing re-en­try ser­vices — hous­ing, em­ploy­ment coun­sel­ing, med­i­cal care — for the Unger in­mates as they came out of prison.

Feld­man has not shared the story of her brother with col­leagues, but clearly his death in­flu­enced her life in the law, in the realm of the long­est-im­pris­oned.

“I made a con­scious de­ci­sion to let go of my anger and sad­ness, and to fo­cus on heal­ing, com­pas­sion, un­der­stand­ing and the best of all — sec­ond chances,” she says. “I be­came a pub­lic de­fender to live those truths ev­ery day. I also have a cer­tain amount of guilt that I could not save my brother. So my own re­demp­tion is work­ing to bring other peo­ple’s brothers back home.”

BAR­BARA HAD­DOCK TAY­LOR/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Becky Feld­man is a Deputy Pub­lic De­fender of Mary­land.

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