`Starting all over' in life outside prison

Clemency: Gov. Ehrlich frees a man who spent 36 years behind bars for his role in a fatal robbery.

December 01, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Walter Arvinger awoke at 7:30 yesterday morning in an attic bedroom of his brother's large, Victorian house in Ashburton. He kept his day simple, doing ordinary tasks such as helping his brother fix pipes under a bathroom sink, playing with the family's dog, Pookie, and running errands around town.

The day before, he had awakened in a two-man prison cell in Cumberland, much as he had every morning for the past 36 years while serving a life sentence for murder.

But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. granted him and six others clemency the day after Thanksgiving, and now, wearing a broad smile that he said even prison couldn't take away, Arvinger compared his release to a new birth. "I'm taking things real slow," he said. "I'm starting all over."

At age 55, he will spend the next few weeks adjusting to a world vastly different than it was when he was jailed at the age of 19.

His infant son is now about to become a grandfather. His own grandmother is 105; his mother, 78. Even the tough West Baltimore housing project where the Arvingers used to live has been leveled. Where the George B. Murphy Homes used to stand are now middle-income townhouses.

Robbery, fatal beating

Arvinger was sentenced to life for his role in a 1968 robbery-turned-fatal beating in Baltimore.

Five young men were present the night James Richard Brown was killed, but even prosecutors acknowledged that Arvinger never held the murder weapon, a baseball bat. The man who did was released from prison in the 1990s.

About 18 months ago, Arvinger penned a letter to University of Maryland law professor Michael Millemann asking for help.

Millemann took the case and, with the help of 30 law students, set out to free the man they came to believe was innocent of murder.

Monday afternoon, the law professor drove to Western Correctional Institution to pick up Arvinger and take him home.

"This is what makes practicing law worthwhile," Millemann said of the experience.

Welcome celebration

Festive Mylar balloons and dozens of elated relatives welcomed Arvinger when he walked through the door of his brother's home Monday night. He greeted each of them with a big hug and a big smile and by saying, "I'm back. Yes, I'm back."

He escorted his grandmother down the staircase. "You're walking with me today," he told her. "You're walking with your big grandson."

Helen Wilson, who stands 4-feet-9, peered up and realized this was Walter. "You're home to stay, I hope?" He nodded, and she said, "Oh, thank God. Thank God."

Ella Ball, the mother of Walter Arvinger's only son, embraced him in a bear hug. She said she hadn't seen him since Tyrone Arvinger, their 36-year-old son, was 7 or 8.

As a boy, Tyrone would look up information about his father, and the two have kept in touch through letters and phone calls. Now, Ball said, she hopes her son can build a relationship with his father.

"I'm happy for them," said Ball, 52, "because they can get together and talk. They've lost a lot of years."

Only the governor has the power to free a person sentenced to life, either by approving a parole commission's recommendation for release or by shortening the sentence to a fixed term.

From 1995 until Ehrlich's inauguration, parole commission recommendations to the governor's office went unread. The former governor, Parris N. Glendening, announced shortly after taking office a policy of "life means life," saying he'd release only lifers who were near death - a stance praised by victims' rights advocates.

By contrast, Glendening's predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, approved the parole of 40 lifers and shortened the life sentences of numerous other prisoners, including those of eight women he believed to be suffering from battered spouse syndrome.

Ehrlich revived the governor's power to release prisoners serving life sentences, a move that Millemann said took "political courage and political integrity."

The governor's legal office reviews about 20 clemency requests each month and has considered the cases of eight lifers.

"Governor Ehrlich has a principle that each criminal case should be judged on its merit," Ehrlich's chief legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney, said yesterday. "He's acting on a Maryland constitutional principle of law as well as a personal principle of morality."

Ehrlich's first commutation of a life sentence came last fall, for convicted murderer Karen Lynn Fried. Her prison term was shortened to 45 years, and she is scheduled for a parole hearing next month.

On Friday, Ehrlich commuted Arvinger's sentence to 45 years and the sentence of Mary Washington Brown to 60 years.

She must successfully complete a year of work release before she can be paroled, the governor said.

Brown was 15 years old in 1974 when she fatally stabbed an elderly woman during a botched robbery at Baltimore's old Greyhound bus station.

The victim, Charlotte Ida Lessem, 68, of Fayetteville, N.C., was on her way to a bridge tournament in Bermuda when Brown and another girl tried to steal her purse.

Parole commissioners said they're glad their recommendations on lifers are again being taken seriously.

"It makes us feel like our opinion counts," said David Blumberg, chairman of the parole commission.

Grateful for review

Arvinger's older brother, Stephen Arvinger, said he was grateful for the governor's policy of reviewing each parole request on its own merits.

"Even if he had turned us down, at least he gave it some consideration," he said.

Walter Arvinger had never been in trouble before the arrest and flourished in prison, obtaining a general equivalency degree and becoming a welding instructor.

Now, he said, he just wants to spend time with his family and enjoy his five grandchildren.

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