Appeals court judges skeptical of case targeting parole policy Lawyers say governor unfairly denying leniency for eligible prisoners

November 11, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Lawyers challenging Gov. Parris N. Glendening's policy that nearly ends parole for life-term prisoners were grilled yesterday by skeptical Court of Appeals judges, several of whom asked why the court should intervene in executive branch policy.

The arguments came in three unrelated cases, all involving murderers serving life sentences who claim they are unfairly denied parole consideration. The governor announced in September 1995 that he would block parole for anyone serving life -- killers and rapists -- unless they were dying or elderly.

But David C. Wright, executive director of Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland and an attorney for one of the prisoners, hoped the state's top court would stop what he said amounts to the governor illegally resentencing parole-eligible prisoners to life without parole.

About two-thirds of the 2,000 prisoners serving life terms are affected. Depending on the sentence and their behavior, they could come up for parole consideration after serving as little as 11 years.

Several judges asked what authority they had to constrain the governor on a matter entirely at his discretion.

Judge Dale R. Cathell asked if the court should cite the governor for contempt if he did not parole someone. Or was the possibility of parole being confused with an entitlement for parole, asked Judge Howard S. Chasanow.

Wright said that in 1987, "the legislature created life without parole. Had they thought prior to that that life meant no parole, they wouldn't have created life without parole." Wright represents Walter E. Lomax, sentenced in 1969 in Baltimore city and recommended for release by the Parole Commission in 1994. His parole was denied in the governor's 1995 speech.

"When you are talking about lifers, it is the governor's prerogative," assistant attorney general Richard R. Rosenblatt said, arguing that any governor is entitled to set tougher or more lenient policies than a predecessor -- even those prisoners don't like.

Each of the cases has a different set of circumstances, so it's possible the court could craft three rulings, said Alan H. Legum, lawyer for Peter P. Herrera, who was 18 when sentenced in 1987 in Anne Arundel County.

Criminal defense lawyers have blamed Glendening's hard line for a powder-keg atmosphere and melees at the Maryland House of Corrections Annex, whose population is more than three-quarters life-sentence prisoners.

The governor has approved one medical parole, but turned down two other requests recommended by the parole board.

Rosenblatt assured the judges that the parole board continues to hold reviews.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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