After remaking his life in jail, inmate clings to hope of freedom

Glendening policy keeps lifer, now 55, behind bars

January 05, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

When Walter Lomax went to prison 35 years ago, he was a high school dropout with a list of serious criminal charges and convictions that included car theft, armed robbery - and murder. The man portrayed by prosecutors as a cold-blooded killer who fatally shot a neighborhood supermarket manager during a robbery has always maintained he is innocent of that crime.

Lomax, sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, has used his time behind bars to finish high school, earn an associate's degree and prove himself trustworthy during work-release programs and on family leave.

This fall, as the graying, 6-foot-tall Lomax reached age 55, the Maryland Parole Commission again asked the state to set him free.

The petition was the parole commission's fourth such recommendation during the past 12 years to reward the model inmate for turning his life around, and it came with the support of others, including Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit inmate-advocacy group in Princeton, N.J., that successfully fought last year for the freedom of Michael Austin, who was wrongly convicted of murder.

Lomax "passed every one of our tests," said Patricia K. Cushwa, parole commission chairman, who called his performance "unusual."

But for all the growing support, Gov. Parris N. Glendening held to his policy of not releasing inmates serving life sentences unless they are old or deathly ill. On Thursday, the departing governor denied parole for Lomax and nine other lifers.

"The public perception is life means life," Glendening said in a recent interview. "I've stated strongly my feelings on this issue. I still think the public wants an inmate sentenced to life to serve that sentence."

Over the years, prisoners' rights groups have challenged the governor's position, calling it bad public policy. Glendening has released just six of the 31 lifers recommended for parole - all of them elderly or dying - while the number of violent offenders serving life sentences in the prison system has risen more than 65 percent during the past decade to 2,158, according to public safety officials.

"Do you think that [policy] promotes an inmate who is going to rehabilitate himself or instead a no-hope situation that creates violence in the institutions?" asks Steve Meehan, counsel to Prison Rights Information System of Maryland Inc., an organization that deals with issues of confinement and due process, and has worked for Lomax's release. "Why behave yourself?"

Lomax's supporters, who also include state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, the recently appointed Senate majority leader, and Dels. Clarence Davis and Talmadge Branch, all East Baltimore lawmakers who know Lomax or the Lomax family, plan to turn for help to Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has said he would consider parole for violent offenders on a case-by-case basis.

A tougher mission

Centurion Ministries has set out on the more arduous mission of proving Lomax's innocence in the 1967 killing. It took up Austin's cause in 1996, and that led to a Baltimore Circuit Court judge's overturning a 1975 verdict and his life sentence.

Joseph H. Thomas, Lomax's lawyer 35 years ago, said he always maintained Lomax should not have been convicted, and he wants to see him freed. "I had over 6,000 cases, 3,000 criminal," Thomas said. "This is the only one I feel bad about."

But there is no apparent DNA evidence, which has helped prove the innocence of other prisoners. Among them is Bernard Webster of Baltimore, a 40-year-old who was freed Nov. 7 after serving 20 years in prison on a rape conviction.

And with memories of the 1967 shooting fading, documents becoming harder to find and elderly witnesses dying, building a case for Lomax's wrongful conviction is increasingly difficult. Centurion Ministries says, however, that it intends to back Lomax until he is free. "We're going to spend every amount of energy we have to free him," said James C. McCloskey, Centurion's executive director.

Lomax was indicted for a series of crimes that began July 21, 1967.

On that day, after closing time, a burglar broke into Peltzer's Sporting Goods store at 2311 E. Monument St. and stole $1,062.97 worth of guns and ammunition.

Based on the sequence of indictments against Lomax, nothing happened until more than two months later, when an armed robber terrorized several local businesses and at least one Baltimore resident. The holdups of a pharmacy, two bars and a grocery store were all linked ballistically, according to court records and newspaper accounts.

On Nov. 4, 1967, an armed robber assaulted John Baranowski and stole his Buick, keys, wallet, $300 cash and a white-gold wristwatch.

On Nov. 15, 1967, a man entered the Gardenville Pharmacy in the 5400 block of Belair Road and robbed pharmacist Harry Greenberg. When another person in the store, Michael J. Grossfeld, startled the gunman, he fired a wild shot that struck the pharmacist's wife, Bertha Greenberg, in the chest.

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