Schaefer's commutations criticized by lawmaker

March 19, 1991|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. rebuked the governor yesterday for commuting the sentences of seven female killers without knowing all about the cases, calling the action "typical do-it-now gone awry."

But Mr. Miller predicted that spousal abuse legislation -- that Gov. William Donald Schaefer's commutations last month were designed in part to publicize -- would not be hurt by questions raised about the commutations.

The women whose sentences were commuted last month were presented as having been driven to kill their mates because of constant abuse. The Sun reported Sunday that Governor Schaefer appeared to have acted without all the facts when he commuted the women's sentences.

In three of the seven cases, The Sun reported evidence never presented to Mr. Schaefer, raising doubts about the women's stories.

The cases included a woman who had hired a hit man to murder her husband enabling her to collect on a $22,000 insurance policy; another who had denied in court that she had been abused, and a third who was accused of threatening to kill a witness in her impending murder trial.

The bill before the legislature would change Maryland law to allow evidence in court of battered spouse syndrome, which drives battered mates to believe their only way out is to kill their abusers.

"The legislation will pass in spite of the governor's mistaken commutations," said Senator Miller, a Prince George's Democrat. "The sponsors have worked hard to overcome the stigma of the governor's action."

Mr. Schaefer refused yesterday to answer a reporter's questions about the commutations.

Paul E. Schurick, the governor's press secretary, said, "The governor stands by his decision." And other administration officials involved in the commutation process said the review of four more cases for commutation was under way and would not be conducted differently.

Mary Ann Saar, the governor's director of operations and public safety, and Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of public safety and correctional services, maintained the process for reviewing the cases was satisfactory.

Histories of abuse for the women's commutation appeals were presented to the governor's staff by House of Ruth's Domestic Violence Legal Clinic.

"I'm not changing any protocols," Mr. Robinson said. "No one's made any recommendations to me. We have a good set of protocols" for considering executive clemency cases.

As for the eight women already released on supervised parole -- one of whom was convicted only of assault -- he said, "We reviewed all the files and evidence, and are satisfied that our review was complete and adequate."

The reviews of the cases -- first by Paul J. Davis, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission, and then by Mr. Robinson -- did not include queries of the police officers or prosecutors, or a review of court files of the cases in which men were killed, The Sun found.

Ms. Saar, a former Baltimore prosecutor, said, "Not everybody is as thorough as everybody else in applying the protocol," but she did not elaborate. If the protocol itself "turns out in the long-term to be incorrect," it would be changed, she added.

Governor Schaefer announced Feb. 19 he was commuting the sentences of eight women after being told of the women's repeated abuse.

But the governor was not presented with all the facts of the crimes for which the women were convicted, The Sun reported. Some of the facts in at least three of the cases contradicted evidence gathered by police and prosecutors, in trial testimony and in other court records.

Schaefer administration officials were surprised to hear from reporters about evidence in some of the cases that tended to raise questions about three of the women's experiences and motivations.

"Somebody, somewhere, somehow, before commuting these sentences, should have checked with prosecuting attorneys, should have checked with investigating officers whose job it is to gather evidence, and gone to the judges in these cases who sentenced them," Mr. Miller said.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, declined to comment on the commutations. "That'd be as bad as anything the governor did, because I don't know all the facts in the cases."

But Delegate Mitchell agreed with Senator Miller's assessment that the battered spouse syndrome bill would not be affected by questions about the commutations. The bill passed the House during the weekend. The Senate is due to act on it this week.

Delegate John J. Bishop, R-Baltimore County, was particularly disturbed that the administration did not check court records or talk to prosecutors in an effort to corroborate the women's stories.

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