This guy might be the break these guys seek

June 25, 2005|By Gregory Kane

TWO GUYS named Gary Washington and Reginald Curbeam were at the top of my list of questions.

Hey, a commitment is a commitment. Most Marylanders don't know Washington and Curbeam from Adam. But I made a promise - more to myself than to either Washington or Curbeam - that if I ever got a chance to talk to a governor of Maryland (as I did with Gov. Robert Ehrlich yesterday), I'd bring their plight to the governor's attention.

Washington and Curbeam are imprisoned at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup. Both are serving life terms for separate murders that occurred about twenty years ago. And in both cases, the only evidence against them was eyewitness testimony.

The witnesses in each case later recanted - not surprising given the extreme unreliability of eyewitness testimony. But judges decided in both instances that the witnesses were more believable the first time around.

So Washington and Curbeam sit in Jessup. Their only hope is getting a governor in office with the guts to look at their cases and commute their sentences or pardon them.

Ehrlich might be their only hope. Showing gumption his Democratic predecessor never even dreamed of mustering, Ehrlich has pardoned dozens of prisoners and last November commuted the life sentences of Walter Henry Arvinger and Mary Washington Brown, who were both convicted of murder as teenagers in separate incidents.

Yesterday, Ehrlich pardoned two men who had been convicted of nonviolent offenses. That brought his total number of pardons for this month alone to nine.

These pardons and commutations show that the governor is doing at least one thing right. Ehrlich is certainly on much higher moral ground than former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who refused to bend on his "life without parole" policy. If there's one thing Glendening's intransigence on the life without parole issue proved, it's that there's nothing sadder - or more oxymoronic - than a tough-on-crime Democrat.

"It was a promise I made during the course of the 2002 race," Ehrlich said yesterday in a room of the governor's mansion. "I have always viewed it as simply a part of the governor's job description. Although a lot of people have made a big deal out of it and probably given me too much credit for it, it's what every governor should do."

Ehrlich made no commitment one way or the other about looking into the cases of Washington or Curbeam.

"What we would do is refer the names of those cases to our legal office," the governor said. "But quite frankly, the cases that reach me have already gone through the process. In other words, the parole commission has done their job and referred the cases to me. For this [Washington's and Curbeam's cases], we would most likely refer those cases to the University of Maryland legal clinic, because obviously there needs to be research done, and that's not our job. But we'll be glad to" make the referral.

Ehrlich won't be the only one glad. Washington and Curbeam won't exactly be saddened by the news.

Curbeam was convicted of shooting Larry Thompson and fatally wounding Thompson's friend in a dispute over a drug debt in early 1985.

In the summer of that same year, Thompson identified Curbeam as the shooter. But a weird thing happened about three weeks after Curbeam was convicted. Thompson was standing on an East Baltimore street corner when he saw a guy who looked a lot more like the shooter than Curbeam. Thompson told this story to prosecutors and a judge, to no avail.

Washington's troubles began on Christmas night in 1986 when three men were standing outside his East Baltimore house. One was Washington's brother-in-law, nicknamed "Snake." Another was Faheem Ali. The third was the man who fatally shot Ali - and police said that man was Washington.

"Snake" testified at Washington's trial that the killer was another man. The state's only witness was a 12-year-old boy named Otis Robinson III.

In December 1999, Robinson recanted his testimony and said homicide detectives coerced him into identifying Washington as Ali's killer. The recantation didn't free Washington.

Looking to the governor for a pardon or commutation might not work for Washington or Curbeam. But they stand a far better chance of getting one or the other with Ehrlich than they did with his predecessor.

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