Slayer won't get his wish

January 27, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

A man confined to a psychiatric institution after killing a Baltimore police officer and wounding seven others in a 1976 shooting spree has asked to be granted daily outings from prison.

The inmate's recent request -- permitted by a quirk in state regulations -- has produced a storm of outrage from the slain officer's family and police, prompting state prison officials to say the plea has no chance of winning approval. A formal hearing is not expected for some 12 months.

John Earl Williams, who is 37, was sentenced to a life-plus-60-year sentence and sent to the Patuxent Institution on the premise that he could be rehabilitated. Patuxent allows some inmates supervised outings, as a first step toward freedom.

"In my opinion, one minute of such freedom would be a minute too long," wrote Carrie Halcomb, the officer's daughter, in a Jan. 17 letter to state officials.

And those officials now say the request will be denied because of the heinous nature of Williams' crimes.

"There is a wide degree of sentiment within this department that Mr. Williams should not be released," said Leonard A. Sipes, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "The pain and suffering that he has inflicted on this community mandates his incarceration."

Williams killed Officer James D. Halcomb, 31, and left two officers permanently disabled, when he barricaded himself in his Lombard Street apartment and opened fire with armor-piercing bullets on people below. Five other officers were slightly wounded.

Armed with rifles and shotguns, Williams pinned officers down for a half-hour at the corner of West Lombard and Carey streets before surrendering.

Now, after serving 18 years of his sentence, he wants to leave prison for supervised daily outings -- a request that automatically triggered a hearing by a nine-member Institutional Board of Review. Patuxent inmates who are granted such leave are escorted by a staff member for about four hours each day.

"Activities are designed to re-orient the inmate to the community and to make concrete steps toward re-entry, such as obtaining a driver's license or investigating employment prospects," according to Patuxent guidelines.

Williams would not be able to apply for daily outings were he serving his sentence in a Division of Correction prison, such as the state penitentiary. And, under rules enacted in 1990 -- after a public uproar over Patuxent's release policies for a rapist and a man who killed two Montgomery County police officers -- Williams would not be eligible for the Patuxent program today.

"The rules have been changed to ensure that a person like Mr. Williams would never come to the Patuxent Institution [because] of the heinous nature of his crime," Mr. Sipes said. "There are many in this department who are steadfast against his release. However, we have no choice but to honor his right to be heard."

Williams' hearing before the review board -- made of corrections officials and community members appointed by the governor -- is not scheduled until January 1996.

Seven board members must vote in favor of release, but Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of public safety and correctional services and a former Baltimore police commissioner, will make the final decision.

Anton J. S. Keating, a lawyer who represented Williams at his trial, criticized the statements of corrections officials.

"It's not going to be a fair hearing if the results already are predetermined," said Mr. Keating, who has not seen his former client in years. "It seems to me that they are setting a policy that if you kill a police officer, the rules for release do not apply."

Mr. Sipes said he could not release information pertaining to Williams' treatment at Patuxent. But he said the program "has benefited [Williams] in terms of his psychological adjustment." Mr. Sipes said that as a result of the hearing, Williams could be moved from Patuxent to a Division of Correction prison, where he would not be eligible for parole until 2007 and would need special dispensation from the governor.

Still, those who remember the Good Friday shootings in 1976 are bitter that the issue of supervised outings was raised at all.

"It is my contention, as well as that of the entire family, that preparing Inmate Williams for re-entry into society is a pointless act," Carrie Halcomb wrote in response to a state official's letter asking for an opinion on whether Williams should be granted "accompanied day leaves."

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said he will protest to prison officials and the governor if there is a chance Williams could be released, even on short, monitored visits.

"He's definitely a danger to society," Officer McLhinney said. "I don't expect to see this guy ever walking the streets again. And the citizens of Baltimore shouldn't, either."

But Mr. Keating said his former client was perfect for the Patuxent program, because he had never committed a crime before and indicated that he shot at officers in a failed suicide attempt.

Mr. Keating said, "Sure, he did severe damage. There is no

question he had to be removed.

"But when is enough enough. . . . I'm a believer that with some people, time can go by and they can be positive members of the community."

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