Md. probing more deeply in 4 commutation cases

March 20, 1991|By David Simonand William F. Zorzi Jr.

State investigators are questioning judges and prosecutors in the original cases against four more women being considered for commutation by Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- taking the process further than they did in the release of eight women last month.

The four inmate cases being examined for commutation, like their eight predecessors, are all considered to involve victims of "battered spouse syndrome," a condition authorities say led them to attack their mates -- fatally in seven of the eight earlier commutations.

But The Sun reported Sunday that in at least three of those seven cases, Governor Schaefer acted without all the facts because the original investigators, prosecutors and defense attorneys were never consulted.

Information from those sources, as well as the legal record, appeared to contradict some of the accounts upon which Mr. Schaefer based his early commutations.

State officials said Monday that investigations of the four remaining cases would not differ from the earlier eight.

Yesterday, they insisted that the fuller checks did not indicate any change in policy. It was, they said,merely the application of another, rarely used review required by the Division of Parole and Probation's "executive clemency investigation protocol."

Mary Ann Saar, the governor's director of operations and public safety, explained that the original review of 12 cases -- those of the eight women released and the four now being considered -- did not require such checks because a different protocol was used, one employed by the Maryland Parole Commission.

Using those guidelines, the Parole Commission and Public Safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson rejected the four women initially. When Mr. Schaefer asked them to reconsider those cases, they asked the Division of Parole and Probation to conduct the more in-depth investigation, Ms. Saar said.

"Nothing has changed," said Paul J. Davis, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission.

"The reason we're going deeper in these cases is . . . that in our original investigations, we were convinced that there was enough evidence in what we reviewed to indicate that the [eight] women were victims of battered women's syndrome," Mr. Davis said. "In the four not recommended [to the governor], we did not find it apparent."

Seven of the eight women whose sentences were commuted last month were presented to the governor as having been driven to kill because of repeated abuse.

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

The newspaper cited the cases of 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 who acknowledged to reporters that she knew of no corroboration of her account; and a third who was accused of threatening to kill a witness in her impending murder trial.

Criminal justice officials said they began hearing yesterday from state investigators, although Mr. Schaefer had requested reconsideration in the four cases a month ago.

However, those officials say they are pleased that their opinions and their information about the cases now are being sought.

"I have been contacted about Marie Lake," said Baltimore Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe, referring to one of the four women now under review. "I wish I had been contacted about Bernadette Barnes."

Barnes, 45, was sentenced in 1989 by Judge Bothe to life with all but 40 years suspended for arranging the contract murder of her husband for $22,000 in life insurance money. Mr. Schaefer freed her last month without any knowledge of her profit motive.

Judge Bothe said yesterday that she disagreed with the governor's decision in the Barnes case but felt that Marie Lake, who has served nearly a third of her 30-year sentence for murder, was a good candidate for clemency.

Baltimore prosecutors also confirmed that they had been contacted by Parole and Probation investigators yesterday, asking for assessments of the Lake case and the case against Gail Hawkins, who has served more than 11 years of a life sentence for murder.

"Hey, let's face it. They don't want any more surprises," said one courthouse official.

Meanwhile in Annapolis yesterday, the Senate without debate gave preliminary approval to the Senate's version of a bill that would allow Maryland courts to admit evidence of past mistreatment when a battered spouse is on trial for attacking an abusive mate.

Unlike the House version of the bill, which was passed by the House and sent to the Senate on Saturday, the Senate legislation does not define battered spouse syndrome.

Both bills allow expert testimony on battered spouse syndrome to be admitted at trial.

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