Unlikely champion for woman serving life

November 16, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

HOW DID AN electrical engineer from Florida become fascinated by - if not obsessed with - the case of a Maryland woman serving life for the murder of her teen-age friend in Baltimore County 25 years ago? Why did Charles Stein of Boca Raton spend so much time investigating the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Karen Lynn Fried when no one else around here seemed to care?

"Sometime in late 2000, I stumbled across a Web site called PrisonPenPals.com. I wasn't looking for a pen pal, and certainly not one in prison, but thought it would be an interesting diversion to visit the site," Stein explains. "As a Jew, I was curious if any Jewish prisoners were listed, and found only one [on the site], Karen Lynn Fried. Her listing explained that she had been imprisoned in Maryland since 1978, when she was 17. She had been sentenced to life for murder and conspiracy.

"I'm generally conservative when it comes to crime and punishment, but on the surface I thought it was unusual for a female teen-ager to be involved in such a serious crime. It also seemed unusual for a person sentenced as a teen-ager to still be in prison after 22 years."

I gleaned this from a Web site Stein established on behalf of Karen Fried. In relatively short order, after visiting Towson to check court records and establishing a correspondence with Fried in prison, Stein came to see something terribly wrong with the way the state had treated the woman - particularly former Gov. Parris Glendening's refusal to allow her or any of Maryland's more than 2,000 lifers ever to be paroled - so he jumped in headfirst. Stein went on a one-man crusade for Fried's release from prison, creating the Web site and launching an Internet petition drive. He noted a religious imperative, Pidyon Shevuyim, that requires Jews to go to extreme lengths to liberate a Jew who is considered to be improperly held captive. It is considered a mitzvah, a good deed of high order.

Now it appears Stein was successful in at least raising awareness of the Fried case at a time when a new Maryland governor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., had announced his intention to break from his Democratic predecessor's "life means life" policy on parole. Last week, Ehrlich commuted Karen Fried's sentence from life to 45 years. The governor's action makes Fried eligible again for parole.

Fried was 17 when she lured Toni Jordan, her 13-year-old friend, into a car at night on a parking lot in Carney. Another teen-ager, Neil Cohen, had hidden in the trunk of the car. He confronted Jordan and stabbed the girl 22 times, then slit her throat. Hatred, jealousy, something about a boy (not Cohen) - various stories were given to explain this horrible and senseless killing.

Testifying in her defense, Fried had said she didn't know Cohen was going to kill Jordan. And once the attack began, she was too frightened to stop it. A Baltimore County jury found Fried just as responsible for the murder as Cohen, and, after separate trials, they received life sentences.

Two decades later, Charles Stein traveled to Towson from Boca Raton to examine records in the case and go over trial testimony. He corresponded frequently with Fried over a two-year period, and finally met her last month at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. He became convinced that her life sentence was for lying, not murder.

She did not tell her story to police until 16 hours after the murder, and her first version was a lie. That was her biggest mistake.

"If not for that," Stein concluded on his Web site, "perhaps she would have been granted immunity in exchange for her testimony, or been charged with a lesser offense."

Or perhaps she might have been treated better after serving a few years in prison, getting off drugs, finishing her high school education and becoming an exemplary inmate.

Denied parole several times - despite a 1988 letter from her trial judge supporting her release - Fried ran into the biggest roadblock of all in 1995, when Glendening, presenting his tough-on-crimes bona fides to Marylanders, declared that he would not approve parole for lifers unless they were old or terminally ill. He directed the Parole Commission "not to even recommend - to not even send to [his] desk - a request for parole for murderers and rapists."

Few Marylanders saw anything draconian about this. In fact, many of us who oppose the death penalty embrace life without parole as the perfect punishment in capital cases.

But it's not perfect in all cases, as Karen Fried would argue, as any corrections officer surrounded by hopeless lifers would tell you, or as any fiscally responsible governor, no matter how tough on crime, would concede. It might not have been just for the sake of fairness and humanity that Ehrlich broke the Glendening practice the other day; it's been estimated that Maryland spends about $44 million annually to keep lifers in prison. With the number growing, never granting them parole is expensive and dangerous policy.

On paper - or on Charles Stein's Web site - the Fried case appeared to be ripe for relief, and Ehrlich granted it. If the Maryland Parole Commission acts promptly, Karen Fried could have Thanksgiving dinner outside prison walls for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.

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