A panel of three Circuit Court judges modified the sentence of convicted murderer Michael D. Swartz yesterday, upholding his life sentence but offering him the possibility of parole.
Swartz, 26, whose brother bludgeoned their foster parents to death in 1984, was sentenced November 20, 1991, to life in prison without parole for the murder of Robert Austin Bell Sr., 57, of Crownsville.
Swartz and Ronald L. Scoates, of Annapolis, were convicted of stabbing Mr. Bell 48 times during a $50 robbery in July 1990. Henry Louis Stettler IV, also of Annapolis, was sentenced to a year in jail for driving the getaway car.
The panel, comprising judges H. Chester Goudy, Martin A. Wolff and Eugene M. Lerner, cited a review of the record, the argument of Swartz' attorney, James D. McCarthy Jr., and Swartz' own statements in granting him the possibility of parole.
Mr. McCarthy had asked for a sentence of life with all but 30 years suspended, citing Swartz' remorse after the crime, his tumultuous childhood and his relatively clean record before the murder.
Swartz was abandoned by his abusive mother and adopted by the Swartz family at age 8. Four years later, they sent Swartz back to the Department of Social Services, and he remained in a group home until he was 17.
His adoptive brother, Larry Swartz, is serving a 12-year sentence for murdering their parents in 1984 in Cape St. Claire.
"Although this is not what we were asking for, we are very pleased with the decision," Mr. McCarthy said yesterday, shortly before leaving for the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup to break the news to Swartz.
Swartz appealed to the panel both in person and in a handwritten 10-page letter in which he talked about his conversion to Christianity, his childhood of mental, physical and sexual abuse, and his desire to help others who have had similar experiences.
Mr. McCarthy said he could not tell if Swartz' pleadings influenced the panel's decision, but said that his embrace of religion was genuine. "I think in Michael's case, there is a lot of sincerity to it," the lawyer said.
In his letter, Swartz speaks at length of his new-found religious faith.
"When I was 12 years old, I asked Jesus into my life and shortly after that my parents kicked me out of the house and my life began to fall apart," he wrote. "Over the years, I went through numerous institutions. I experienced, as I had in my early childhood, abuse and mental anguish through all of this.
"Slowly but surely I walked away from Christ. All through these years I often thought of suicide but I always felt that my future held great things. Eight months after I was arrested on the charge I'm convicted of, I've committed my life back to Christ."
Swartz wrote that in prison, he shares his faith with his fellow prisoners, drawing on his experience of abuse and trauma to help others.
"This is where God's love comes into the picture," he wrote. "I use my experience and the love I've found with God to show my love and understanding to whoever is having the problem."
He pleaded with the judges to give him a chance at life outside of prison.
"I know, by experience, I have been involved in a horrible crime," he wrote. "I agree that I should spend a considerable amount of time in prison. But giving me life without parole is like saying I could never be any good to anyone or for anything and that is just not true. . . . It's hard for me to believe freedom-wise, my life is over when it's truly just begun."
Swartz also expressed his remorse at Mr. Bell's murder.
"I may have joy because of Jesus but I will always be saddened in my heart for Mr. Bell and his family," he wrote. "I always keep them in my prayers. I truly am sorry for what has happened to them. I would do anything to take the pain they feel away."