Judge serves random act of late-justice kindness

December 15, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

When her 20-year- old daughter describes people with her current favorite label of "random," Baltimore Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin isn't quite sure what she means.

"But I started to come to the conclusion - and it's pretty obvious - that life is random," Rasin told me yesterday, during a break in a busy day of deciding who should be jailed and who should get a second, third or 10th chance. "In Mr. Lomax's case, the randomness of the events that led him to be in prison for 39 years is extraordinary."

Indeed.

First, Walter Lomax was picked out in a huge lineup of black men rounded up in 1967 after a wave of robberies in the city.

Then, he was convicted and sentenced to life for killing a store manager during one of those robberies, in a trial in which no police officer testified and no witnesses mentioned that the gunman had a cast on his right hand - as Lomax had at the time.

Then, despite becoming a model prisoner who had been recommended for parole four times, he remained locked up because then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening decided that "life means life," no early releases. And, finally, an equally successful 5 1/2 years in work release was abruptly ended when another inmate in the program killed a former girlfriend and then himself.

He kept getting "yanked back," Rasin said, "because of forces totally out of his control."

Luckily, if belatedly, for him, Rasin took control after reviewing hundreds of pages documenting problems with his conviction and demonstrating his clean record in prison. She ruled Tuesday that his life sentenced should be changed to time served - 39 years.

That's decidedly longer - to pull a recent case at random - than Lawrence Banks, who also uses the name Malik Smartaney and was arrested Wednesday by Prince George's County sheriff's deputies in the killing of a woman and her infant, The Washington Post reported yesterday. Banks/Smartaney had been convicted of murdering two people in 1991, including his 17-year-old son in Baltimore, and received two 20-year sentences to be served concurrently. He was released in 2002.

When Rasin received, in October, Lomax's request for his case to be reopened and she waded through the case files, her first reaction was not to lump it in with other postconviction motions, which generally are heard one after the other in a day.

"We've got to get this in faster," she recalled thinking, "like, yesterday."

Lawyers hashed out an agreement, and Rasin said she could have announced her ruling in five minutes. Instead, in extended and often emotional remarks from the bench, she mused about the racial climate at the time, the efforts that Lomax had made to educate and better himself, and even her hopes and fears for the man she was releasing.

"This was just my human, idiosyncratic, personal reaction in the face of all these facts," she told me yesterday. "It's like what Willy Loman's wife said, `Attention must be paid.' Not only for legal reasons. ... I just thought things needed to be said, both to the victim's relatives and to acknowledge the difficulties with the case."

Rasin was troubled by how white witnesses picked out a black man from a lineup, citing studies that have since shown that cross-racial identifications are more likely to be wrong.

"It was another world then," she said. "The jurors came from another world, and a lot has happened.

To see just how much, I took a quick spin through The Sun from those days, on microfilm in the newsroom library. To read those papers of December 1967 is to enter a world of impending upheaval, globally and societally: Amid all the cheery Christmas ads from Hutzler's and Stewart's, there are dispatches from the Vietnam War, speculation about peace candidate Eugene McCarthy challenging President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination, news of Martin Luther King Jr. planning a march on Washington next spring.

African-Americans were called "Negroes" in news articles, surely the most polite term in circulation at the time, as in three Negroes joined a country club, or the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on whether a Negro could be barred from buying a house in a suburb.

But most shocking to modern eyes is The Sun's real estate ads during that time: There would be a small, separate column of houses, usually going for about $25 a week, under the heading of "Colored." These listings, suffice it to say, were not in Guilford.

So this was the world in which, on Dec. 2, 1967, The Sun carried a late-breaking bulletin about Robert L. Brewer, 56, being killed in a holdup at 1 o'clock that morning. This was the world in which Walter Lomax was arrested. But at least it's not the world he returned to this week.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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