An inmate who should root for Ehrlich

Then again, what's another couple of years when serving life?

August 15, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

More than two years have passed since professors and students at the University of Maryland School of Law finished an investigative report with convincing evidence that Mark Farley Grant, a 43-year-old man serving a life sentence, was wrongfully convicted of murder at the age of 15. They submitted the report to the Maryland governor along with a petition for executive clemency.

But Gov. Martin O'Malley hasn't lifted a finger on the Grant case. He's a no-parole-for-lifers Democrat and, this being an election year, he's not about to exert any energy to spring a guy from prison.

I mean, what's to be gained, beside a clear conscience? And there aren't any votes in it. Most of Mark Farley Grant's relatives have died off by now.

Excuse me, ladies and gents. I have a tendency toward sardonic speculations about the motives of our wanna-be-president-someday governor. I assume that he would keep an innocent guy in prison because he's in a tough re-election campaign, against a Republican comeback kid named Bob Ehrlich, and Mr. O'Malley needs to keep a safe distance from liberals who believe in things like overturning wrongful convictions. Stuff like that can wait. What's another couple of years when you're serving life?

I'm being cynical, of course, but there's a basis for it.

The Maryland governor has the power to commute criminal sentences and to grant clemency. The governor has a duty, one could say a moral duty, to review requests for clemency and claims of wrongful conviction, particularly those that arrive on his desk with a credible foundation — in Mr. Grant's case a thorough report that makes the case for his innocence, a report that took more than three years to complete.

Mr. O'Malley's immediate predecessor, supposedly a more conservative governor, did not shrink from this responsibility.

When Mr. Ehrlich was in Annapolis — a one-term Republican between No-Parole Parris Glendening and No-Parole O'Malley — he assigned staff attorneys to review clemency requests and claims of wrongful conviction. In all, Mr. Ehrlich rejected 211 requests but pardoned or commuted the sentences of 249 convicts, according to The Washington Post. Six of the cases involved offenders serving life sentences for murder. One of those was a Baltimore man who had served 36 years for a crime he did not commit, and the report supporting him had come from the same University of Maryland law school program that took up for Mr. Grant.

Conservatives and other Ehrlich supporters might find that odd or ironic: the Republican issuing pardons and commuting sentences while the Democrat won't be bothered. That's because the modern Democrat remains paranoid of the soft-on-crime charge Republicans used effectively two decades ago, in the Willie Horton era.

But there's a big difference between being "soft" — instituting law enforcement or corrections policies that might be considered too lenient or prove to be flawed — and being just. Justice is something everyone embraces, across political lines, and the quest of it is honorable. You can't have justice until you get to the truth, and several pages of truth, with regard to Mark Farley Grant, went to the governor's desk more than two years ago.

Last week, Renee Hutchins, one of the law professors who took Mr. Grant's case, reported some news: Mr. Grant had been transferred from the state prison complex in Hagerstown to the Patuxent Institution in Jessup. The purpose of the transfer was to allow Mr. Grant to undergo the psychological assessment he was told he needed before the Maryland Parole Commission could recommend him for release.

It has taken almost two years to get to this point. Mr. Grant has been standing in line for parole consideration, just like every other inmate eligible for parole. (Mr. Grant was convicted in 1983 and given a sentence of life with the possibility of parole.) His case has received no special treatment by the O'Malley administration. It's as if the report from the University of Maryland made no difference.

Even if Mr. Grant passes muster with the shrinks at Patuxent, and the parole commission recommends him for release, there's still no guarantee — not with Mr. O'Malley. Maryland, unfortunately, is one of only three states that give their governors the power to nix parole suggested for lifers. Every time the parole commission has recommended a lifer for parole, Mr. O'Malley has said no.

From his prison cell, Mark Farley Grant should be rooting that Mr. Ehrlich wins in November.

Dan Rodricks' columns appear each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is host of Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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