'Life term' shouldn't be meaningless

October 22, 1993

Brian Arthur Tate was sentenced to life in prison just last January for butchering a young man in a fit of jealousy. This week, he wanted the courts to tell him when he can get out of jail.

Is it any wonder the public thinks life sentences are a joke?

Tate, an 18-year-old former quarterback at Broadneck High School, deserves to be in jail. He needs to be in jail. He is dangerous. What he did to 19-year-old Jerry Lee Haines was both vicious -- Mr. Haines was beaten and stabbed 24 times -- and cold-blooded.

In the days before the killing, his told his friends details of his plot to kill Mr. Haines, whom he hated because he was dating a former girlfriend of Tate's. He told them he'd been sharpening his knife "all week long."

Today, Tate's attorneys prefer not to dwell on these details. Instead, they talk about the progress he has made in jail -- how he has earned his general equivalency diploma and will give a valedictory speech at graduation ceremonies this weekend.

They want Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Raymond G. Thieme to set a release date, saying it would help Tate in his therapy to have a goal to work toward. The court must not grant this request. The concept of a life sentence will be shot to pieces if it does.

It is true that, in our justice system, a life sentence does not necessarily mean a lifetime of imprisonment. The system holds out the possibility of parole for the vast majority of offenders if they show they have changed their ways. Those serving life sentences are first eligible for a parole hearing after serving about 15 years; Tate would be, too. But until someone is actually paroled, the assumption must be that a person sentenced to life in prison will never get out of jail.

If, nine months after sentencing a brutal murderer like Tate to life, the court says he can get out someday, then it may as well do away with life terms. It may as well do away with parole boards and parole, too. Lifers will have no reason to try to earn their freedom through rehabilitation if judges start promising them release from the get-go.

As far as Tate is concerned, he already has a goal. He can focus on reforming and being a good prisoner in the hope that, 30 or 40 years from now, a parole board might let him out.

L The courts shouldn't give him any more guarantees than that.

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