Governor to reduce woman's life term

Convicted in 1978 murder of fellow teen-ager, Fried may be released on parole

November 14, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plans today to significantly reduce the life prison sentence of a woman convicted in one of Baltimore County's most gruesome killings.

Despite pleas by prosecutors and distraught family members of Toni L. Jordan, a 13-year-old whose neck was slit after she was stabbed 22 times, Ehrlich will likely commute convicted murderer Karen Lynn Fried's sentence from life to 45 years, the governor's legal counsel said yesterday.

That means that Fried, who was 17 when she was incarcerated for the 1978 killing, could be quickly released on parole.

Ehrlich's action would be a clear break from former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's "life means life" policy. Glendening refused to grant parole to any inmate serving life in prison, unless that inmate was near death. Ehrlich has said that he would make his decisions case by case.

Only a governor can alter a life sentence, by granting parole or modifying the length of incarceration. Once the governor commutes a sentence to a set number of years, that inmate can be granted parole by the parole commission.

Fried's would be the first life sentence to be altered by Ehrlich. Because her new term would be 45 years, the parole commission would be able to grant her parole almost immediately.

That distresses Jordan's family.

"My mother-in-law has not slept since last Friday," when she learned of the coming commutation, said Elaine Fortman, Jordan's sister-in-law. "It's like the whole thing all over again. It's just unbelievably cruel that he can do this."

Jervis S. Finney, Ehrlich's legal counsel, said that he would not discuss the specific aspects of Fried's case that persuaded the governor to commute her sentence.

"There are a host of issues involved in this case, as in others," Finney said. "The age when the crime occurred, the time since the crime occurred, the degree of participation, the admissions of guilt, the performance during incarceration, the likelihood or lack of likelihood of recidivism."

Jordan, who lived in Hamilton, was in seventh grade when Fried, a friend from Hillendale, lured her into a car where a teen-age boy was hiding, prosecutors say.

Fried drove Jordan and the boy, 16-year-old Neil Cohen, to the parking lot of Weber's Cider Mill Farm in Carney early on the morning of March 23, 1978. There, while Fried watched, Cohen stabbed Jordan 22 times, and slit her throat so deeply that he nearly dismembered her, prosecutors said.

At Jordan's funeral, her sister-in-law remembered, the young teen-ager looked peaceful but had to be dressed in a high-collared shirt. The family quickly closed the casket.

After the murder, prosecutors said, Fried drove away with Cohen in the car, running over Jordan's body.

Later, Cohen confessed to the crime, and said that he and Fried wanted to kill the younger girl because she was getting on their nerves. Other court testimony suggested that Fried and Jordan might have had a dispute over a boy.

"It was that kind of teen-age normal jealousy," said Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney James O. Gentry Jr. "But it ultimately ended a little different than normal teen-age jealousy."

Fried said at trial that she did not know Cohen was planning to kill Jordan and that she did not try to stop him because she was scared.

Many justice reform advocates and others in the court system have pushed for a case-by-case approach to commutations, saying that inmates need a chance to rehabilitate themselves in prison.

In a recent court order shortening a prisoner's sentence, for instance, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Christian M. Kahl called "Draconian" Glendening's policy of rejecting all parole requests of inmates serving life sentences.

"There are some cases where this Draconian policy should be waved," Kahl said, speaking in general and not about the Fried case.

Del. Salima S. Marriott said Ehrlich's move in Fried's case is a clear departure from Glendening's policies, and therefore "a breath of fresh air."

"Glendening had a failed policy in regard to lifers," said Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat who was an outspoken critic of the former governor's position.

Prosecutors and Jordan's family said yesterday that Fried's is not the case with which to shift policies. They said Fried has never apologized, and should not see her sentence reduced.

They also said they feel ambushed by the governor's office because they didn't learn of the commutation until late last week.

Gentry said that he found out about it while working on another matter in Fried's case, and called Jordan's mother right away. "When I called to tell them, their question was, `How can he do that without first talking to us?'" Gentry said.

Gentry asked Jordan's mother to write a victim impact statement, which he sent to the governor's office Monday, along with crime scene photographs and other information. Later, other family members wrote to the governor as well.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety said that the Parole Commission had contacted Jordan's mother earlier, but Fortman said the family only learned this past week.

"I just can't believe that [the governor] can do this without even talking to us, giving us the chance," Fortman said.

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