A life turned around

December 18, 2006

Most of Walter Lomax's 59 years have been spent in state prisons for a killing that it's unlikely he would have been convicted of today. A judge's decision last week to free him was a grim reminder of the fallibility of the criminal justice system and a testament to the resilience of an imprisoned man whose profession of innocence never wavered.

The Lomax case also brings to mind former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's ban on paroling lifers, which disregarded the possibility of an inmate's having genuinely reformed; it's an inequity that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has since corrected. Mr. Ehrlich's independent review policy should be continued because it has shown that there are lifers who could be released without jeopardizing public safety.

Mr. Lomax, in many ways, was a victim of his time. He was among the black men rounded up during a robbery spree in 1967. He ended up being convicted, on flimsy evidence, of the robbery-murder of a white convenience store manager. No witness who identified Mr. Lomax as the killer ever remarked about the gunman's right hand; Mr. Lomax's was immoblized from a beating two weeks earlier. While in prison, Mr. Lomax educated himself and maintained a spotless record. The Parole Commission recommended his release four times, but it was an unusual post-conviction petition and court proceeding that freed him.

Citing issues of witness identification and the competency of Mr. Lomax's lawyers at sentencing, Baltimore Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin agreed to reopen the case, modified Mr. Lomax's life sentence to time served (39 years) and placed him on probation for three years. Mr. Lomax's bids for parole under Mr. Glendening were blocked by the policy against paroling lifers.

When Mr. Ehrlich became governor in 2002, he replaced that policy with staff reviews of commutation requests. He has commuted the sentences of five lifers, granted a medical parole to another and denied the requests of 11 others.

The approach was the right one because it restored an essential incentive for serious, long-term offenders to turn their lives around. Mr. Ehrlich chose to commute lifers' sentences with special conditions, rather than parole them immediately. It ensured that prisoners received services as they returned home and re-entered society, which meant giving them a fighting chance to survive.

As for the backlog of parole and pardon cases Mr. Ehrlich inherited? While the administration made some headway, renewed requests from prisoners with life sentences who had given up hope of ever having a chance at release compounded its work. That's a good outcome.

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