Mandatory-sentence case follows unusual track to commutation 5-year term lifted in handgun offense

May 19, 1991|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

In the two years after Harry and Maria Karvounis separated, she charged that her husband grabbed her, choked her, tried to run her down with a car and held a gun to her head. Finally, one July evening in 1987, Karvounis came to his wife's house and pumped two slugs into her live-in lover.

Convicted of attempted second-degree murder and a handgun violation, Karvounis faced up to 50 years in prison for his crime. Instead, he served just 18 months.

For his extraordinarily light sentence, he got some extraordinary help:

His wife refused to testify against him.

His victim, to whom he paid $25,000 in cash before the trial, pleaded for leniency for him at sentencing.

His character witness asked the judge to go easy on him, invoking the name of a gubernatorial crony.

His trial judge volunteered to ask the governor to commute a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for a handgun violation.

And Gov. William Donald Schaefer, in a rare act of executive clemency, agreed to do so.

One of 289 criminals sent to prison in 1989 under the mandatory sentencing law for using a handgun in a violent crime, Harry Karvounis was the only one whose sentence was commuted. He was the only inmate who had a judge appealing for his freedom. He was the only one whose well-connected friends orchestrated a letter-writing campaign.

His relatively short passage through the criminal justice system is a tale of lucky breaks and unlikely events. Harry Karvounis' story is about the subjective nature of justice, about how he won mercy in a system required to dispense punishment.

Mr. Schaefer, in a recent interview, said that the recommendation of Baltimore County Circuit Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. -- along with what he described as "tremendous pressure" on Karvounis' behalf from Baltimore's Greek community -- convinced him to commute the sentence last year.

"I remember Judge Murphy saying at the time that if he had had the authority he would've . . . commuted him himself, and [that was] the first time any judge had made such a very, very strong plea on behalf of anyone," Mr. Schaefer said. "He thought there was a great injustice done."

In addition, there was "a tremendous push by people about [Karvounis'] background," the governor said. "The father and mother were actually grieving, to the point almost of death."

Until February of this year, when Mr. Schaefer freed eight women prisoners described as victims of "battered spouse syndrome," he has shown little interest in the early release of prisoners. Since the controversy over the freeing of those women, The Sun has examined Mr. Schaefer's other commutations.

Aside from the annual Christmas releases -- a near-perfunctory display of clemency for convicts with little time left to serve -- Mr. Schaefer has commuted the sentences of just three inmates. One was brain-dead from a head injury; another remade herself into a model citizen after escaping from custody.

The third inmate was Harry Nicholas Karvounis, a 45-year-old restaurant owner.

To the prosecutor in the case, Karvounis was undeserving of the governor's mercy.

"This case is in no way different from the myriad of other violent assaults that occur annually where, out of jealous motive, a scorned lover seeks revenge," Philip S. Jackson, a Baltimore County assistant state's attorney, wrote the governor, opposing the commutation. "The defendant in this case is remarkable only for the degree of violence he brought to the affray and his lack of candor from the stand."

"I just shot someone"

Harry Karvounis knocked on the door of Maria's home in Sparks just before 9 p.m. on July 25, 1987, saying he wanted to speak with her and Peter W. Ireland Sr., who had been living with her and her three sons.

Mrs. Karvounis let him in, and the three began talking while they drank in the living room. After Mr. Ireland left the room, Karvounis stood up, pulled out a .38-caliber pistol and told Maria in Greek not to make a sound, according to police reports and testimony.

When Mr. Ireland returned to the room and sat down, Mrs. Karvounis stood up between them as Karvounis pointed the gun over her shoulder and fired a shot into her boyfriend's right thigh. The two men struggled, and Karvounis held the gun to Mr. Ireland's forehead and pulled the trigger. Mr. Ireland heard the click of a misfire, according to police reports and testimony.

Karvounis shot Mr. Ireland again, this time in the left shoulder. He fired once more, but the bullet went into the floor.

Mr. Ireland wrestled the gun away from Karvounis, who ran out the front door. Mr. Ireland staggered down the front steps, fired a shot and collapsed. Karvounis fled in his car.

About 45 minutes later, Karvounis pulled into a Shell station on York Road in Cockeysville and announced to two attendants, "I just shot someone. I'm not going to hurt you."

He surrendered to police officers soon after and was charged with trying to kill Mr. Ireland. A few hours later, he was free on $75,000 bail.

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