Prisoner's sentence is life without hope Parole system ignores situation of individual inmates, experts say

September 23, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

On Aug. 18, 1972, the jury decided, a 29-year-old Vietnam veteran named William Henry White joined three men in a robbery of a Broening Highway tavern that ended in the death of a 35-year-old customer.

Judge Paul Dorf imposed what was the longest sentence in the history of Baltimore Circuit Court -- life plus 155 years for the killing of John V. Bohlen Jr. The judge said he hoped White never got out.

White might seem just the kind of person Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to keep permanently behind bars. On Thursday, the governor announced that he will deny parole to virtually all life-term inmates in the Maryland prison system.

Except that White was never alleged to have been the shooter that day. Except that the man who was accused as the killer got less time from a different judge. Except that the prosecutor in the case still has a kernel of doubt today whether White was even involved.

William Henry White, whose black hair is now dusted with gray, is 52 and has changed his name to Amin Nabil Abdullah. Family members, friends, lawyers and even a former warden of the Maryland Penitentiary have told the Maryland Parole Commission that Abdullah's positive activities in prison show he is worthy of a chance to go home someday.

His case illustrates the problems advocates and experts see in a parole system that ignores the circumstances of individuals, however long their sentences. In an announcement outside the prison where Abdullah makes his home, Mr. Glendening said he will make exceptions when life-term prisoners who have committed murder or rape are old or terminally ill.

On one side of the debate is Abdullah's sister, Lillie Dabney, who was crushed by this week's news. On the other are people like Sally Ransom Knecht, who became active in support groups for homicide victims after her husband was slain in 1987. She says Mr. Glendening has finally provided "truth in sentencing."

"We're sentenced to life in terms of living without the loved one, in terms of putting our lives back together," Mrs. Knecht said. Abdullah's prison job is taking pictures of the staff, fellow inmates, for weddings, and anything else that is needed. Some time ago, he wrote an advice column for fellow inmates, called "Dear Bill."

He has participated in a project counseling youths about the perils of violent crime. He has started self-help groups. He got a GED and diplomas in typing and welding while in prison . He took college courses.

"He's not a violent person," Ms. Dabney said. "You can't put a bunch of people in a barrel and judge them all the same. Each situation is different. The way our justice system works, the other person is in jail doing the time and the person who did it is out living the life."

But the former Judge Dorf, who retired from the bench in 1984 to return to private practice, said yesterday he still remembered the crime of which Abdullah was convicted, and still considers it just.

"I felt at that time, based on what I had heard, that he was an extremely dangerous person," Mr. Dorf said. "There was nothing given to me at the time to show there was any possibility of rehabilitation."

Abdullah and other life-term inmates had a slim chance of parole even before Mr. Glendening's announcement. Only 90 such inmates have been granted parole in the past 14 years. But Mr. Glendening's decision comes less than two months after a federal judge declared a Maryland parole policy toward life-term prisoners unconstitutional, giving some inmates hope that they would soon have a chance to be released.

Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz wrote that the parole commission could not require life-term inmates to be in work release as a condition of parole, at the same time corrections officials were not allowing life-term inmates to participate in work release.

"The effect of these changes is to foreclose lifers from ever being able to obtain parole," the judge wrote. "Hope and the longing for reward for one's efforts lie at the heart of the human condition. Their destruction is punishment in the most profound sense of the word."

Baltimore Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe echoed the judge's words yesterday, saying Mr. Glendening had given no incentive for prisoners to hope or change.

"Most of the people we sentence to life are very young," Judge Bothe said. "No matter what a guy is like at 20, there's no way of predicting what he'll be like at 40."

But Mrs. Knecht said one chance, for killers, is enough. Her husband, the Rev. Lewis Ransom, didn't even have that chance when he was shot during a robbery.

"We will never see our loved ones who are gone," she said.

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