Can Mark Farley Grant get justice — in an election year?

Innocence Project established another man’s guilt two years ago, yet Governor O’Malley has taken no action

April 13, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

In the matter of Mark Farley Grant — who was convicted in 1983 of a murder that the Innocence Project argues persuasively he did not commit — there is no DNA evidence. There's no old shirt with stains, no jacket or pants in a forensics lab, nothing that could undergo the kind of biological testing that might exonerate him and force the governor of Maryland to release Mr. Grant after 27 years in prison. There's nothing CSI-like about the case.

No, the things that would prove Mr. Grant's innocence are kind of old-fashioned: affidavits of witnesses who said they lied at his trial way back when, the discovery of a failed lie detector test by the key prosecution witness, that sort of thing. The Innocence Project, a faculty-student effort at the University of Maryland School of Law, conducted a lengthy investigation into Mr. Grant's claims of innocence. The students burned some shoe leather, found many of the witnesses and identified another person as the perpetrator. Mr. Grant, the report said, was the victim of perjured testimony and a flawed defense.

Mr. Grant was 14 when police arrested him for the street shooting of another boy, Michael Gough, during a botched robbery one winter night in West Baltimore. Mr. Grant claimed his innocence at trial. He claimed his innocence after being sentenced to life. When he wrote from prison to the University of Maryland Innocence Project for help, the students and professors there took nearly two years to review his case. They took another two years to gather information and affidavits. Their report on the case, in which they identified the apparent real killer of Michael Gough, went to the governor's office with a request for clemency for Mr. Grant.

That was nearly two years ago.

No action has been taken. Mark Farley Grant is still in prison in Hagerstown.

Given the Maryland governor's reluctance to commute a sentence or grant clemency to anyone — as well as his embrace of the no-parole-for-lifers and "life means life" philosophy — it's hard to imagine Martin O'Malley ever acting on Mr. Grant's case, never mind in an election year.

But, of course, had there been some DNA, this all might have been over by now, and Mark Grant would be out on the street looking for a job.

Now that we are in the age of DNA testing, claims of wrongful convictions without it appear to be at a striking disadvantage, especially if calculating, what's-in-it-for-me politicians are asked to make a judgment call. The availability of DNA testing and resulting exonerations have "made it harder for prisoners seeking to prove their innocence in the much larger number of cases that do not involve DNA evidence," The New York Times reported last year. "Many lawyers have grown more reluctant to take on these kinds of cases because they are much harder and more expensive to pursue."

Last year, Maryland received one of the first Bloodsworth Awards given by the National Institute of Justice. The award is named for Kirk Bloodsworth, who was cleared of a Baltimore County murder through DNA testing while serving life in a Maryland prison. The funds, more than $300,000, will be used for post-conviction DNA testing.

"The advent of advanced DNA testing provides law enforcement a vital tool to find and convict criminals quickly," Mr. O'Malley said at the time, "and this new grant will give us the means to use DNA testing to help clear the wrongfully convicted."

In February, Mr. O'Malley's chief legal counsel noted the Bloodsworth award in a letter to Mark Farley Grant's aunt, though it had no relevance to her nephew's case.

"Governor O'Malley takes his constitiutional powers of executive clemency very seriously," Elizabeth Harris wrote Mr. Grant's aunt, Regina Grant Zelik of Pittsburgh. "This requires a thorough vetting of the merits of each application for executive clemency. I can assure you that the application of Mr. Grant, like all clemency applications, is getting a serious, full and thorough review."

If only such a thing were believable. It's not like the Innocence Project sends these cases to the governor's office every week, or even every year. Yet, there is no sense of urgency about it, and no evidence that the Grant case is being handled at any level above the Maryland Parole Commission, and just like any other case that comes along.

Ms. Zelik, the youngest sister of Mr. Grant's late mother, doesn't understand what's taking so long. "Everything needed to make this decision," she wrote Ms. Harris, "is in the hands of the governor."

Everything but DNA. The lack of it, however, shouldn't put Mark Farley Grant at a disadvantage in his quest for clemency, especially when his advocates have put so much time and effort into documenting what they firmly believe was a wrongful conviction. There might be no DNA in this case, but there is the hard sweat of justice.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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