Death of a lifer: Who says Democrats are soft?

Tarif Abdullah served 35 years and never got a second chance

October 09, 2011|Dan Rodricks

It got to the point where the governor of Maryland would anticipate Melvin Bilal's words whenever he saw him. "I know what you're going to say," Martin O'Malley declared each time Mr. Bilal approached him at various public functions over the last five years. "Tarif Abdullah."

Mr. Bilal is a politically savvy Catonsville-based attorney. For several years, he's handled daunting post-conviction matters for men and women serving life sentences in Maryland prisons, including Tarif Abdullah. Mr. Bilal says he repeatedly asked the governor to consider Mr. Abdullah — the nature of his crime, the amount of time he had served in prison, his behavior while incarcerated — and to either approve the middle-aged inmate for parole or grant him clemency.

Mr. Bilal pointedly asked Mr. O'Malley to honor a promise he heard him make to a group of Muslim business owners at a fundraiser in 2006: that, if elected governor, he'd consider each lifer's case individually and not revive the "life means life," no-parole policy of a Democratic predecessor.

Of course, that's not how it turned out. Mr. O'Malley, maintaining his tough-on-crime bona fides, has not granted parole to anyone serving a life sentence, including those, like Mr. Abdullah, who were sentenced to life with the possibility of one day being eligible for parole.

So Mr. Abdullah ended up serving a full sentence — from age 21 until his death from liver cancer two weeks ago today — for his connection to the fatal shooting of a drug dealer in Montgomery County 35 years ago.

In 1976, Tarif Abdullah, then known as Gregory Jones, had been part of a group of young men who set out to rob the dealer of marijuana and cash. Mr. Abdullah did not fire the weapon used in the killing, Mr. Bilal says. But, because he was involved in the robbery, Mr. Abdullah was charged with felony murder — that is, held in part responsible for the victim's death.

"Tarif should never have gone to trial for felony murder," says Mr. Bilal, who 10 years ago became Mr. Abdullah's attorney and soon after his friend. "He turned himself in and admitted to the robbery. Therefore, it was a piece of cake for the state to prove felony murder. He should have taken the state's plea bargain of second-degree murder. He probably would have served only about 15 years."

Instead, Mr. Abdullah only got out of prison to die.

In the early 1990s, when he was eligible for work release, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer suspended that program indefinitely. By the time Mr. Abdullah was eligible for parole, another Democrat, Parris Glendening, was in Annapolis and issuing his "life means life" edict.

Ten years later, Mr. O'Malley decided to run for governor against Bob Ehrlich, the Republican who had succeeded Mr. Glendening.

(As governor, Mr. Ehrlich regularly exercised his gubernatorial duties with regard to requests for parole, pardons and commutations. While rejecting 211 requests, he also pardoned or commuted the sentences of 249 inmates, including six offenders serving life sentences for murder. Mr. Abdullah was not among them, nor was he lucky enough to be considered for parole during Mr. Ehrlich's term of office; it wasn't his turn.)

In 2006, Mr. O'Malley attended a fundraiser sponsored by an association of Muslim business owners in Baltimore, according to Mr. Bilal. During a question-and-answer session, Mr. O'Malley was asked about his position on parole for lifers. "I will look at each case on an individual basis and make a decision," he answered, according to Mr. Bilal. The business owners raised about $38,000 for the O'Malley campaign that night.

During the next five years, Mr. Bilal persisted in his efforts on Mr. Abdullah's behalf. But the Democratic governor always steered him to an aide, and nothing ever happened.

In 2008, the Maryland Parole Commission approved Mr. Abdullah for release. However, Mr. O'Malley did not act on the recommendation until this August and, when he did, he rejected it. "When Tarif got the letter saying he had been disapproved, I think that's when he gave up," Mr. Bilal says. "He went downhill after that. He had no fight left in him."

Mr. Bilal says Mr. Abdullah had a clean prison record and had served on various inmate advisory councils. He had hoped to be paroled and to settle into the growing Muslim community in the Gwynn Oak section of Baltimore.

"Tarif deserved a second chance," Mr. Bilal says.

But, of course, he didn't get one. Mr. Abdullah's health deteriorated quickly within the last two months. He was transferred to a Baltimore hospital on Sept. 21. "When we got to the hospital, he was handcuffed to the bed," says Mr. Abdullah's sister, Veronica Haziel. "I said, 'My God!'" The cuffs were removed. Mr. Abdullah died a few days later. He was given an Islamic funeral, or janaza, and buried in a Baltimore cemetery.

A spokesperson for the governor said the O'Malley administration was aware of Mr. Abdullah's death, but, in this matter of the aging lifer who was sentenced with the possibility of one day earning parole — a matter that tests leadership and conscience — no further comment was offered.

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