Family visit for killers not a rarity Program draws ire of victims' group

April 23, 1993|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer

More than a dozen convicted murderers serving life sentences in Maryland prisons are routinely rewarded for good behavior with passes to visit their families -- a fact that has outraged crime victims.

The issue of which inmates get leave came to light this week when convicted cop killer Samuel Veney escaped while visiting his son in Towson. Family leave is available to all prisoners except those sentenced to death or life without parole.

"I didn't even know there was such a thing," said Carol Cooper, 45, the daughter of Baltimore police Sgt. Jack Lee Cooper, the man Veney shot to death on Christmas morning in 1964.

"You can be convicted and sentenced to life, yet you can still go visit your son or your mother? What kind of an example is that?" Mrs. Cooper said. "My Dad doesn't get to come visit us on the weekend. This isn't justice."

But the policy is ardently defended by state corrections officials, who said Veney and 13 others had earned a right to the passes and that the program gives a rehabilitated inmate a shot at returning to society.

"We still feel that it's a viable and realistic program. It doesn't look at this time that there's going to be any change in it," said Cpl. J. Scott McCauley, a state prisons spokesman.

Veney, 54, has been a model prisoner throughout his time behind bars, and won kudos from prison officials for protecting teachers during two inmate uprisings at the Maryland Penitentiary in the 1970s.

He was on his 18th family leave over the past two years when he failed to return Sunday night, and his whereabouts were still unknown last night.

The concept of a killer being given a two-day pass has been assailed by victims' rights advocates, who not only object to the program but also to the state's claim that victims' families can't be notified because of privacy laws.

"We're told we're not privileged to know [when a pass is given.] That really upsets us. I certainly would like to know if the person who killed my first husband is out on the street," said Sally Ransom Knecht, Baltimore County representative for the Stephanie Roper Foundation, a victims' rights group. The nonprofit organization was founded by Roberta Roper, whose daughter, Stephanie, was murdered in 1982.

Since the Veney case hit the news, several victims have complained to the Roper Foundation about the family leave policy. Mrs. Cooper, who lives in Baltimore County, also questioned the policy, and the state's refusal to alert families.

"I would have gone through life and never known he [Veney] was being let out," she said. "We have a right to know what's going on in our own nightmare. They say Veney didn't want to die in jail. Well, my father didn't want to die in the gutter."

Prison officials refused to release the names of any of the other 13 convicted killers receiving passes, citing privacy concerns.

One of those convicted killers has received 54 family passes, and three others have earned 40 or more passes, correctional officials said. Most of the others have been given between 10 and 30 passes.

Veney has spent the past 10 years in a work-release program and started earning family leave two years ago, correctional officials said.

Like the others in the family leave program, Veney had met the criteria for earning a pass -- participating in work-release, having an excellent conduct record, and being due for a parole hearing within a year.

Initially sentenced to death, Veney won a commutation to life imprisonment in 1973 -- before Maryland had a life-without-parole sentence.

A talented artist who taught oil painting and pottery in prison art classes, Veney helped to quell two riots at the penitentiary in 1972 and 1979, according to those who were there.

Carolyn Buser, education supervisor at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, was the principal of the school at the penitentiary when the 1979 riot occurred.

"It was a three-hour episode in which the school was marooned in the middle of the yard," she recalled. "The officers were unable to cross the yard to come get us. Sam made sure nobody got in the building and he took charge, keeping things calm inside. The inmates wouldn't come in because they knew he was there. It was because of his stature in the institution."

She said she was not at the 1972 riot, "but it was commonly known that he helped out in that, too. He was very concerned for several of the teachers, a reading teacher in particular."

Correctional officials said there is no indication of any error in the handling of Veney's work release or family leave.

"It is clear that nothing in our records, or his behavior prior to the recent family leave, would have predicted recent events," state Division of Correction Commissioner Richard A. Lanham Sr. wrote in a memo sent Wednesday to Bishop L. Robinson, Maryland's public safety secretary.

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