Lawmakers on governor's parole authority: Use it or lose it

O'Malley has refused to grant even medical paroles; 50 requests pending

  • Sen. James Brochin (D-Md.) is one of several Democrats who are exasperated by O'Malley's inaction to release certain criminals who are serving life sentences. Brochin is a member of a Senate committee expected to vote this week on legislation that would remove the governor from the process altogether.
Sen. James Brochin (D-Md.) is one of several Democrats who are… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
March 13, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

While Gov. Martin O'Malley has the authority to release a convict serving a life sentence, he has never used it.

Now, lawmakers are considering whether to take it away from him.

The House of Delegates has approved legislation that would free a lifer on the recommendation of the state parole commission if the governor does not file an objection. A Senate committee is expected to vote this week on legislation that would remove him from the process altogether.

The efforts are being led by O'Malley's fellow Democrats, some of whom are exasperated by his inaction on the 50 cases now sitting on his desk.

"He has executive power, but he has chosen to do nothing," said Sen. James Brochin, a member of the committee poised to vote on the legislation.

But some Republicans say that diminishing the governor's power simply allows him to avoid a political minefield. Releasing a lifer who goes on to commit more crime could render a politician unelectable.

"The governor is now directly accountable," House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said. The Calvert County Republican said changes to the system would "let him have it both ways" — enabling him to set lifers free while making it possible for him to blame the parole commission if the decision proved the wrong one.

Lawmakers say their review of the parole process was prompted by O'Malley's inaction on commission recommendations through his first four-plus years in office.

Under state law, a lifer recommended for release by the parole commission may not be freed without the approval of the governor. The changes lawmakers are considering would not affect convicts sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Seven of the 50 cases the parole commission has asked O'Malley to review concern the release of a lifer, according to the commission chairman. The remaining 43 involve the commutation of a life sentence to a term of years, which would enable the convict to gain release through good-time credits or parole.

The legislation is silent on sentence commutation requests.

O'Malley, who focused as mayor of Baltimore on fighting crime, has not acted on any of them.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons said O'Malley is shirking a duty. The Montgomery County Democrat said the House legislation, which would require the governor to act in order to prevent a release, would take away his ability "to run and hide" from the question of what to do with lifers who have been recommended for parole.

Brochin, a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, opposes both the Senate and House bills. But the Baltimore County Democrat said lawmakers feel forced to take action because O'Malley has not.

He likened O'Malley's approach to parole to his simultaneous opposition to capital punishment but refusal to commute the sentences of the five men on Maryland's death row.

"These are two examples where the governor just needs to get more involved," Brochin said.

An O'Malley spokesman said the governor "doesn't take this part of his job lightly."

"The time it has taken to review is not in any way an indication of him ducking the issue on individual cases or on the issue conceptually," spokesman Shaun Adamec said.

O'Malley opposes the Senate plan, Adamec said. The governor has been reviewing the House proposal.

The 50 cases on the governor's desk include examples held up by advocates of paroling lifers — and others cited by opponents as Exhibit A of why they shouldn't ever go free.

Del. Curt Anderson outlined the case of Hercules Williams, the getaway driver in a city murder who has been behind bars since 1972. Now in his late 60s, Williams has earned a college degree. The parole commission has recommended him for release three times.

When is debt paid?

"At some point, when do we say as a society, 'You've paid your debt?'" asked Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat.

Williams' lawyer, University of Maryland law professor Renee Hutchins, said her client is "remarkably resilient and graceful, given the uncertainty."

"It's frustrating for him to hear nothing," she said.

As a counterpoint, O'Donnell talked about a man who was sentenced to prison for armed robbery. Allowed out on work release, he committed a first-degree murder. He eventually won parole, but was sent back to prison for beating his children.

"These are not, in many instances, nice people," O'Donnell said.

Scott Shellenberger, the top prosecutor in Baltimore County, favors a "life means life" approach. He wrote lawmakers last week urging them to reject both the Senate and House proposals.

He cited the case of Douglas Wiley, convicted with two others of breaking into the home of a Baltimore County family. Armed with a handgun and a knife, two of the burglars raped the 21-year-old daughter living there.

The day after Wiley was convicted, he escaped from jail. After he was recaptured, he was sentenced to life.

"Releasing a lifer," Shellenberger said, "is a weighty decision that should be handled by a person directly responsible to the voters."

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