The power of clemency

November 28, 2003

WHEN KAREN LYNN Fried was sentenced to life in prison in connection with the murder of a 13-year-old friend, it was with the understanding that she could one day be paroled. That's what anyone would expect who received a sentence of life with the possibility of parole, especially a 17-year-old girl who had her whole life ahead of her. But the man who could have considered Ms. Fried's pleas for clemency adopted his own rule: no parole for lifers convicted of murder or rape.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's policy withstood a court challenge in 1999 -- which underscored the ultimate power of Maryland's chief executive on matters of an inmate's liberty. But the legality of his decision on lifers was based on the fact that it was a policy, not law. Today, there is a new man in the State House and a new policy on pardons and commutations for which Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should be commended.

For every pardon and commutation recommended to the governor by the state Parole Commission, Mr. Ehrlich's legal staff is conducting its own analysis of each case on its merits. Karen Lynn Fried, who has shown herself to be an exemplary inmate during 25 years in prison, is among the first to benefit from the new policy. Mr. Ehrlich recently commuted her life sentence to 45 years, which will make parole possible for her. The parole commission had sought relief for Ms. Fried twice before, based on her record and conduct in prison. The governor's staff also is working to reduce a 350-case backlog of pardon requests that built up during the Glendening years.

Its diligence -- reviewing 20 cases a month -- should help to assure Maryland citizens that requests are being decided in a fair and timely manner, which is what the public deserves.

The power of clemency is among a chief executive's most weighty responsibilities. In Maryland, unlike some other states, the governor has the final say over pardon requests. That requires Mr. Ehrlich and his staff to be as transparent about his decisions as possible. The public must feel confident that a convicted felon's debt to society has been paid. At the same time, an inmate who has worked hard to change his attitude and behavior should be worthy of leniency.

In less than a year in office, Mr. Ehrlich has issued 14 pardons -- and rejected almost as many. None of the cases has been as grave as Ms. Fried's; her conviction involved the brutal stabbing of a teen-age girl. A critical test of Mr. Ehrlich's individual approach to clemency requests will be his review of death penalty cases.

But even a "thorough, individual analysis" of each case won't reveal the disparities in the system as reported in a University of Maryland study last year. It won't account for the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, poor lawyering or geographic inequities found in death penalty cases across the country.

Now is the time for Mr. Ehrlich to reconsider his opposition to a moratorium on the death penalty -- an independent, thoughtful analysis has already shown the system to be frightfully flawed.

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