As festively dressed New Year's Eve revelers ducked into restaurants for Annapolis' First Night celebration, a more solemn group stood outside the governor's mansion seeking freedom for 10 prisoners serving life sentences.
Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, and her group, Campaign for Justice Under the Law, held the vigil as part of a last-ditch effort to persuade departing Gov. Parris N. Glendening to parole prisoners whom he has previously denied release because of his "life means life" policy.
"We are concerned about a legacy that we do not want carried forward into the next governor's term," Marriott shouted from a podium set up in an area known as Lawyers Mall.
Raquel Guillory, a Glendening spokeswoman, said he does not let advocacy groups influence his parole decisions.
"Just like with death-penalty cases, he doesn't hear from either side," Guillory said. "He looks at each case individually and very thoroughly based on the facts."
Maryland law gives the governor the final say on whether a life-sentence prisoner is paroled. Three years ago, the state's highest court affirmed that Glendening could ignore the recommendations of the state Parole Commission, which the governor appoints, and use his own discretion in releasing those serving life sentences.
In his eight years as governor, Glendening has freed six life-term inmates, according to Marriott. All of them had a terminal illness. Five others died while awaiting the governor's parole decision, she said.
Ten others - known to Maryland justice groups as "the Glendening 10" - were recommended for release in the past eight years by the Parole Commission, but Glendening, a Democrat, has refused every request.
"These people have been determined to be ready to leave the system," Marriott said.
More than 2,000 of the 23,000 inmates in the Maryland prison system - about 9 percent - were serving life sentences in 2001, according to a Division of Correction report that year.
Among those attending last night's vigil was Kemry Hughes, who heads the Maryland Justice Coalition and has a younger brother serving a life sentence for a robbery-homicide in Bethesda more than 20 years ago.
Jackie Hughes, who has not been recommended for parole and is not one of the 10 prisoners that the group is trying to get released, is serving time at the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover.
"This draconian approach of locking folks up and throwing away the keys has got to end," Kemry Hughes said. "Enough is enough."
One of the "Glendening 10," Walter E. Lomax, was recommended for release by the Parole Commission in 1989 and 1994, based on what his lawyers called an exemplary record.
Two governors refused to free Lomax, who was sentenced in 1969 for the first-degree murder of a Brooklyn food manager.
Lomax was one of three inmates who separately challenged Glendening's policy in court. In September 1995, Glendening announced he would block parole for anyone serving a life sentence unless they were dying or elderly.
The Court of Appeals ruled in 1999 that Glendening could set his own guidelines for paroling prisoners serving life sentences.
Marriott's group held a vigil Christmas Eve and have planned two more - one Tuesday, the eve of the legislative session, and one Jan. 13.
If Glendening refuses to parole the 10 prisoners, they can make their case after Jan. 15 to a new governor: Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"It looks like these folks may have more luck under Governor Ehrlich," said Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich. "In certain circumstances, he is not opposed to paroling those with life sentences."
But Marriott believes releasing prisoners recommended for parole during Glendening's term is "his unfinished business," she said.