Eighteen years ago, when a Maryland judge sent William Joseph Parker to prison for life, I thought it was an extremely good idea. Parker was, physically and by deed, one of the scariest men I'd ever seen in a defendant's chair. No one I know wanted to see his face or to recall his ugly crime again.
But by complete coincidence, Parker's is the last of three cases scheduled on the day I've chosen to check out the state's relatively new system of open parole hearings.
Emerging from a holding cell, Parker appears before us -- wide forehead, receding hairline, the nose as flat as a boxer's and the lips fixed in a subtle sneer -- in the sunlit room set aside for hearings at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown. His face is puffier and paler but no less menacing than it was in 1979. Chunky, with thick forearms, Parker wears a plaid shirt and jeans.
The last time I'd seen him was May 15, 1979. He was sitting in Prince George's County Circuit Court, Upper Marlboro, awaiting his sentence for an act that earned him the title of every parent's nightmare. He had abducted from her bicycle, then raped and murdered a 13-year-old Annapolis girl named Elizabeth Archard. He shot her five times and left her body in a wooded area near Bowie in Prince George's.
Parker, listed in press reports as a "former Anne Arundel County volunteer firefighter" and nothing more, was spared a death sentence by a comma, or the lack thereof.
At the time of his crime, this is how Maryland law defined the circumstances under which a judge could sentence a killer to death: "The defendant committed the murder while committing or attempting to commit robbery, arson, or rape or sexual offense in the first degree." The lack of a comma after the word "rape" meant the phrase "in the first degree" modified the words "rape or sexual offense." Parker had been convicted of second-degree rape. That's why he was spared the death penalty. Judge Howard Chasanow, now of the Maryland Court of Appeals, made the ruling before sentencing Parker. "I am giving you every day I possibly can," Chasanow told him. "I would not consider suspending one hour of your sentence."
The sentence was life. Not life without parole. So, 18 years later, Parker gets his hearing in Hagerstown.
But not without first hearing from the parents of his victim.
They come, bravely, to sit in the same room with the killer, to recall the girl who was viciously snapped away from them on a summer day in 1978.
Barbara Hale is the mother; her husband is Phillip Doubleday Hale. I remember him from Parker's sentencing. He was 52 at the time. He sat in a courtroom pew, ramrod straight in a three-piece summer suit, jotting down Parker's monosyllabic utterances. Hale had then, as he does now, a monocle and a mustache. I remember thinking that Elizabeth Archard's stepfather resembled a correspondent for a British newspaper.
I also remember small children sitting next to Hale in the courtroom. Those children, siblings of the victim, are grown now, in their 20s, and they've also come to Hagerstown.
"Our family was shattered," Philip Hale tells Patricia Cushwa, chairwoman of the Maryland Parole Commission, and Maceo Williams, the other commissioner assigned to Hagerstown for the day. "We live in a time warp. Every day is August 28."
He says Elizabeth's four siblings were profoundly affected by her murder. "The three boys do not know where they failed in protecting their sister," he says. "Some of the boys are just now facing what happened..."
Philip Hale looks at Parker, 15 feet away.
"We fear this man," he says sternly. "We fear what he may do to others.... If there is to be a healing, it cannot happen if William Joseph Parker is to be released. We ask you to fulfill the judgment the court passed on him -- that he be in prison for the rest of his life."
Barbara Hale speaks of how children and parents throughout Anne Arundel County were terrified by what happened to her daughter in the summer of 1978.
Philip Hale adds the words: "When you see a little child go down the street on a bike..."
He halts, shakes his head, weeps. He can say no more.
"I take full responsibility for what I did," Joe Parker says after the Hales leave the room. "I feel sorry for the family. I'm sorry I did what I did."
Under questioning by Williams and Cushwa, Parker says he remembers the rape but not the shooting.
Cushwa repeatedly challenges that assertion.
"You've had 19 years to think about this, Mr. Parker," she says, suggesting that he killed Elizabeth Archard only because he feared she could identify him as her rapist.
At the time of his crime, Parker was 28 years old, separated from his wife and drinking too much. And he was full of rage. Where did it come from? Williams and Cushwa ask Parker if he can say why he ravished and murdered the Archard girl?