Parole decisions can carry a terrible price Commissioners rule privately without guidelines on revocations PAROLE: DECIDING WHO GOES FREE

November 14, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

Daniel Heiser and Theodore Bundley Jr. both might be alive today if Maryland's parole system worked the way it was supposed to.

Bundley was a dangerous parolee with a penchant for armed robbery. Mr. Heiser ran a gasoline station in Catonsville that he was prepared to defend from the likes of Bundley.

A year ago this week -- on a night that Bundley should have been in jail -- he tried to rob Mr. Heiser and triggered a gunfight that left both men dead.

Bundley was free that night even though he had been arrested weeks earlier in another armed robbery. And a month before that arrest, he had been convicted of assault.

The parole system should have kept Bundley behind bars until it could decide what to do about those incidents, which violated his parole. But it failed to act in time.

The system is built around seven men and women, called parole commissioners, who make decisions that have a profound effect on public safety.

Using basic guidelines, commissioners decide which prisoners to parole, or release early, for good behavior. But their job doesn't end there. They also decide whether or not to punish parolees who, like Bundley, violate the terms of their early release.

And for that, they have no guidelines at all.

It's also not uncommon for them to ignore the recommendations of the people who know the offenders best, their parole agents. Just how often, the commission doesn't know.

Unlike judges, commissioners operate in secret. Their records are sealed. They will not even reveal who among them made a particular decision.

They are appointed to their $56,800-a-year jobs by the state's public safety chief, with the approval of the governor and the Maryland Senate. They are required to have experience in law, crime, psychology, education or social work. Three of the seven also have strong political connections.

They exercise their power without any public oversight -- and, some say, accountability.

"The general public doesn't know the parole board acts in secret," said Susan Heiser, Mr. Heiser's widow. "I find that so appalling, so absolutely unbelievable."

But Commission Chairman Paul J. Davis said that he and his colleagues do their best. "We make hard decisions, and we make them every day. Certainly, if we're erring at all, we're erring in favor of public safety," he said.

A parolee in trouble

The Parole Commission released Theodore Richard Bundley Jr. from prison in 1990 after Bundley had served three years of a 10-year prison term.

At the time, the rap sheet for the 21-year-old Baltimore man included one conviction for assault with intent to murder and two for armed robberies in Baltimore and Baltimore County.

Mr. Davis said that he could not discuss specific reasons for paroling Bundley -- or anyone else -- because it would violate an inmate's legally protected right of privacy.

After two years on parole, Bundley in August 1992 pleaded guilty to assault "with intent to disable" for his role in a fight. He didn't get any new prison time, but that didn't matter to the parole agent who supervised Bundley.

The agent believed that the conviction violated the conditions of Bundley's parole that required him to obey all laws, among other things.

Bundley's agent wrote to the Parole Commission because only its members have the power to return parole violators to prison to complete their sentences.

Bundley had "once again been convicted of a vicious, violent crime," the agent wrote. He asked the commission to have the parolee arrested and jailed until it could decide his fate.

But a commissioner said no, concluding that Bundley was not as dangerous as his agent believed. The commissioner issued a summons ordering Bundley to appear at a hearing, but allowing him to remain free until then.

In the meantime, Bundley began proving how dangerous he could be. In September 1992, a month after his assault conviction, he was arrested and jailed in the robbery of an Athlete's Foot store at gunpoint.

Missed opportunity

Unfortunately, the state computer system that was supposed to notify Bundley's agent of his arrest failed to do so. The system compares arrests against a list of parolees and sends written notices to agents when it finds a match. For unknown reasons, that did not happen.

Bundley's agent did not discover that Bundley was in jail until a month later, after he did some checking of his own. Within days, he fired off his second report to the commission, again asking for a warrant that would keep Bundley behind bars.

For two weeks, however, nothing happened.

No one can say what caused the second delay. (State law prohibits The Sun from examining the case file.) The commission does not keep any record of when it receives a warrant request, nor does it have any self-imposed deadline for issuing a decision, Mr. Davis said. Usually, he said, the commission acts within days of receiving a request.

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