Schaefer launches review of commutation process

March 21, 1991|By Tom Bowmanand John W. Frece | Tom Bowmanand John W. Frece,Sun Staff Correspondents

WASHINGTON -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer said yesterday that there would be a review of the process that led to his commutation of sentences last month in the cases of seven women convicted of killing their mates, purportedly as a result of years of abuse.

In the first public comment the governor has made on the cases since The Sun raised questions about the thoroughness of the process, Mr. Schaefer said, "We'll look it over. We'll get a better process."

As for whether any mistakes might have been made as a result of the existing commutation process, Mr. Schaefer said, "I don't know yet. I really don't know."

"I would commute the same ones again, most likely," he told reporters here after his annual meeting with members of the Maryland congressional delegation. But, he added, "if there was an error, admit an error."

The governor was not specific about the details of the review he was suggesting, nor about when it might be completed.

"Give me a little time to look into it," he said, adding that The Sun "had two weeks to dig stuff, day and night, 24 hours a day. Give me at least four or five hours. Sure we'll look into it."

Mr. Schaefer announced Feb. 19 that he was commuting the sentences of eight women -- including one charged with assault -- after being told of the women's histories of repeated abuse. The governor met with five of the women after appeals were prepared by lawyers at the House of Ruth, one of several advocacy groups involved in the Domestic Violence Task Force that undertook the commutation effort.

The Sun reported later that Mr. Schaefer was not presented with all the facts in the commutation cases, citing three cases in which information supplied for his decision was contradicted by the legal record. State officials had failed to question the investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys or judges involved in the cases, although they are now contacting some of them in four cases still being considered for commutation.

The governor referred to one of those cases yesterday, that of Patricia Ann Washington.

In the Sunday review of the cases, The Sun noted that the Washington case was confounding because no evidence exists in the trial evidence and police investigation to show abuse on the night of the murder or in the years prior to the killing. Washington herself told a reporter she knew of no independent corroboration for her account.

Reciting the version he acted on, Mr. Schaefer said yesterday: "The person has actually been abused from the time she was 3 years old, and she thinks that she wasn't abused. There're psychological reasons for this -- I know she was. But the paper says that she says she wasn't abused, and the evidence is there just as clear. It all depends on what you want to do."

While the governor said he was reviewing the commutation process yesterday, state Delegate John J. Bishop, R-Baltimore County, obtained House approval for late introduction of an emergency bill that would restrict future commutations by the governor. The governor's chief legislative officer immediately labeled the bill "unrealistic" and "inappropriate" and said it was "probably unconstitutional."

The bill would require that before a commutation was ordered for anyone sentenced to life imprisonment, the Maryland Parole Commission would have to prepare a report that included the recommendations of prosecutor; a summary of the relevant charging documents, arrest records, trial transcripts and appellate records; and the recommendation of the trial judge.

That report also would have to be forwarded to the presiding officers of the General Assembly at least 14 days prior to the governor's commutation of the sentences. In addition, a notice of his intent to commute sentences, now required under the state constitution to be published in a newspaper before the day he decides the issue, would have to appear two weeks in advance.

David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief legislative officer, said he had not had a chance to review the bill thoroughly or to discuss it with the governor. But he called the proposed prior notice to the General Assembly "a significant intrusion in an area the constitution clearly says is the power of the executive branch. It is probably unconstitutional."

He also said the detailed reporting required under the legislation is "verging on regulation put into statute and is inappropriate."

Because it was introduced with less than three weeks remaining in the 1990 session, Delegate Bishop's bill now goes to the House Rules Committee. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, said he did not know yet whether the bill would warrant referral to a full standing committee for late consideration.

Mr. Bishop said he decided to introduce the bill after reading the newspaper accounts. "People were surprised that maybe the governor was ill-served by not being given a complete report," he said. "Obviously, he didn't have all this information when making these decisions."

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