Veney's escape: logical outcome of irrational system

DAN RODRICKS

April 24, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

The people of Baltimore, particularly his victims' families, deserved to be finished with Sam Veney forever.

He killed a police sergeant and almost killed a lieutenant nearly 30 years ago. He was spared the death penalty. He received life in prison. The people who lived through the tragedy Veney and his brother wrought, Christmas Day 1964, should have been spared from hearing his name ever again, except in the footnotes of local history.

Instead, Sam Veney is front-page stuff again. He is a fugitive, having failed to return from a weekend pass.

Weekend pass?

As a matter of fact, Veney was free on his 18th leave since winning "family-leave status" two years ago. And, it turns out, more than a dozen convicted murderers have been getting passes to visit their families. All these men are serving life sentences.

In Veney's case, state officials tell us he had no chance for parole. That's probably owing more to the nature of his crime than to his behavior in prison. (Veney has been described as a "model prisoner.")

So if Veney, now 54 years old, was looking at prison for the rest of his life, why give him a chance to escape? Even "model prisoners" are susceptible to mid-life crisis and fancies of flight.

A man has nothing to look forward to but prison, and the state of Maryland lets him have weekends with family?

That policy can be described in one word: Duh.

If, instead, Veney had a real shot at being paroled someday, then maybe -- I stress the qualifier -- I could see the state's position. Veney would have something to gain by returning each weekend.

Still, it's not right -- for many reasons.

One is this: A society has a right to lock up and throw away the key on particular criminals, with no concern for their rehabilitation or welfare. Most Baltimoreans would have been pleased had cop-killer Sam Veney never been heard from again -- dead or alive.

The Veney escape and the policy it exposed are the worst kind of occurrence for a criminal justice system already suffering from a lack of public confidence.

Veney was originally sentenced to death, but won a commutation to life imprisonment in 1973. Ten years after that, he won the right to go on work-release.

That's not what we're paying for. That's not in our contract with the people who run the prisons.

Opponents of the death penalty -- I stand among them -- have been advocating the option of life-without-parole for several years. It is an important option for primarily two reasons: You never have to worry about executing the wrong man and you never have to worry about seeing the criminal on the streets again.

Though Sam Veney was not sentenced to life without parole, the state tells us that was, in effect, his sentence.

That's why his treatment by the state is so outrageous. If he is not deserving of parole, he is not deserving of the privileges that prepare him for return to the community.

Can we get this straight once and for all?

Those of us who oppose the death penalty do not want the state to be a party to gassing criminals. But we also do not want them on the streets ever again. We want a life sentence to mean life in prison. We do not want it to mean life in prison with weekends off.

Some people argue that life-without-parole is a terribly hard line. Lifers ineligible for parole become hopeless -- and meaner and angrier -- while in prison. If that's so, then house them all together, or grant them privileges, as they grow older, but keep them inside the walls.

We leave it to judges and juries who hear all the facts in criminal cases to decide which offenders should get life without parole. Sometimes jurors opt for LWP over the death penalty, as in the case of a Howard County jury that sentenced the criminal who shot and killed a state trooper in 1990.

In some cases -- even murder cases -- certain young offenders probably should get a second chance, somewhere down the line, as long as, in the meantime, we're willing to keep them separated from the lost-causes, the chronically violent felons who mold them and render them unsalvageable.

There will be a tough call in Howard County again soon. Bernard Miller, convicted yesterday in the carjacking murder of Pam Basu, faces sentencing June 29. He was 16 when the crime was committed. Should he get life without parole?

We trust that decision to the judge who presided over Miller's trial and listened to all the evidence.

As young as Miller was, he took part in a horrific crime. If the state decides its citizens deserve never to hear from Bernard Miller again -- and that Miller does not deserve a second chance -- then the choice is life without parole, and we'll have to accept that.

Once the deal is struck, all parties who enter this contract must stick to its conditions. No weekends off. Otherwise, it's farce.

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