A governor's duty

Time for executive decision in matter of Mark Farley Grant

April 14, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

The Maryland governor can no longer do as Martin O'Malley has done for most of his five years in office — ignore recommendations from the Maryland Parole Commission. Dereliction of executive duty is no longer going to be tolerated. Under a measure passed by the General Assembly, the governor must act within 180 days of a parole recommendation for an inmate serving life; if the governor doesn't act, the recommendation takes effect.

That might force Mr. O'Malley to finally act in the matter of Mark Farley Grant, a 43-year-old inmate who has been in prison since he was 15. Within the last couple of months, Mr. Grant, by all indications, has been recommended for parole by the commission. This should give Mr. O'Malley the political cover he needs to free a man a jury found guilty of murder — without ever having to consider and judge Mr. Grant's well-supported claims of innocence.

Some background:

Like it or not, since the early 20th century, we've given lifers a chance to earn their way out of prison. We've let the parole commission consider each case. We've let the governors have the final say.

But the two Democratic Maryland governors of the last 16 years — Parris Glendening, 1995-2003; and Mr. O'Malley, 2006-present — embraced a no-parole-for-lifers policy, ensuring that dozens of inmates, even those sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, stayed behind bars. (Mr. Glendening has since expressed regret for the edict and acknowledged its political nature.)

The Republican who served between the Democrats — Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., 2003-2007 — took a different and unquestionably more complex approach. He considered parole on a case-by-case basis. In four years, he commuted the sentences of five lifers, granted medical parole to one and denied parole to 11. "He's acting on a Maryland constitutional principle of law as well as a personal principle of morality," Mr. Ehrlich's chief counsel, Jervis Finney, told The Sun at the time.

One of the inmates to whom Mr. Ehrlich granted clemency was Walter Arvinger.

Mr. Arvinger had been sentenced to life for his role in a 1968 robbery-turned-fatal-beating in Baltimore. Five young men were present at the beating, but even prosecutors acknowledged that Mr. Arvinger never held the baseball bat that was used in the murder; the man who did had been released from prison in the 1990s.

In 2003, Mr. Arvinger wrote to a University of Maryland law professor to ask for help. The professor and his students, convinced that Mr. Arvinger was innocent, set out to free him. Mr. Ehrlich's staff considered the case and, in 2004, the Republican governor ordered his release. Mr. Arvinger had been in prison for 36 years.

Now compare that to Mr. O'Malley's handling of Mark Farley Grant: convicted of murder in Baltimore at 15 and sentenced to life; claims of innocence investigated by University of Maryland Law School; investigation concludes that Mr. Grant did not commit the crime; report goes to governor's office with request for clemency in 2008.

Here's what I was told whenever I inquired about the case with the governor's office:

July 2009: "We are aware of the case and it is currently under review."

September 2009: "The case is still under review by the Parole Commission. At the appropriate time, of course, the Governor and legal counsel will read the report prepared by the University of Maryland Law students."

January 2010: "The Governor's legal counsel is still reviewing the file."

September 2010: "Mr. Grant's risk assessment is set to begin next week. … His case is moving forward through the Parole Commission."

February 2011: "The Governor's office has not completed its review. The parole commission will be sending its written recommendation to the Governor's Office at which time the recommendation will be reviewed."

Of course, the case of Mark Farley Grant should have nothing to do with parole. It's a claim of wrongful conviction, backed up by a credible report that found all sorts of problems with Mr. Grant's trial, including perjured prosecution testimony. The report also identified the real killer of Michael Gough, a boy who was gunned down for his leather jacket one cold night in 1983.

"Mark Grant did not kill Michael Gough. There is now no question about the fact." With that declaration, the report went to Mr. O'Malley. That was in the summer of 2008. Instead of shifting responsibility to the parole commission, the governor could have and should have made a judgment about Mr. Grant's claims of innocence long before now. Certainly he cares more about justice than politics.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He hosts Midday, Mondays through Fridays, on WYPR. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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