O'Malley dips his toe into justice

Our view: Move to commute two life sentences breaks a disheartening trend

March 07, 2012

This week, Gov.Martin O'Malleyis making a first, tentative use of one of his most fundamental powers as governor: to right injustices in the treatment of those who have been convicted of crimes. Mr. O'Malley is moving toward commuting the sentences of two inmates sentenced to life in prison, a welcome departure from his previous habit of simply ignoring the recommendations of Maryland's parole board in the case of lifers. He was pushed by the legislature, and he is wading gingerly into the issue. But at least in these two cases, the cause of justice is winning out over simplistic, tough-on-crime politics.

Of the two inmates in question, Mark Farley Grant is the more familiar to Sun readers; his case and the efforts to win his release have been chronicled extensively by columnist Dan Rodricks. Mr. Grant was convicted of murder in a street robbery committed when he was 14, but an investigation into the matter by the Innocence Project has found compelling evidence that he is, as he has always claimed, innocent of the crime. The original prosecutor in the case says he never would have brought it to trial if he had known what he knows now.

The other candidate for clemency is Tamara Settles, aPrince George's Countywoman who lured a man to a robbery during which he was fatally shot by her then-boyfriend. She was 26 at the time and is now 53. The boyfriend pleaded guilty and wound up serving only nine years; Ms. Settles went to trial and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Governor O'Malley's action clears his desk of parole and commutation recommendations for the first time since he took office, but it hardly reflects a great thawing in his stance on intervening in the cases of those serving life sentences. Since the General Assembly began debate last year on a law requiring the governor to act on parole recommendations within 180 days or have the commission's recommendations go into effect automatically, Mr. O'Malley has rendered decisions in 59 cases. In 57 of them, the recommendations were denied.

Most of those were commutations, which are not covered by the new law but which are employed more frequently by the Maryland Parole Commission, largely for logistical reasons. A commutation is a change in the terms of a sentence — in these cases, a conversion of a term of life to one of years. It can have largely the same effect as parole but doesn't necessarily.

Maryland, California and Oklahoma are the only states where the governor has the final say in parole decisions. Elsewhere, the parole commission's decision goes. There is much to be said for such a system, in that it insulates criminal justice decisions from political meddling. The flip side of that coin has been readily apparent in Maryland in recent decades. Former Gov. Marvin Mandel allowed parole for 92 convicts with life sentences; Harry R. Hughes, 64; William Donald Schaefer, 36; Parris Glendening, six (all for medical reasons);Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., six.

And until now, Mr. O'Malley has granted none. The governor came to prominence as a tough-on-crime mayor of Baltimore, and despite the very different role he now plays, he has seemed reluctant to consider different approaches. At The Sun's Newsmaker Forum last month, he bristled at the notion that there had been any negative consequences to the zero-tolerance policing strategy he had employed as mayor, which resulted in a spike in the number of arrests for minor offenses, thousands of which were never prosecuted.

Mr. Glendening has recently said he regrets the "life means life" policy he employed, admitting it was a matter of politics, not justice. Our hope is that Mr. O'Malley's action in these cases represents a similar evolution in his views. It was clearly unjust that Ms. Settles has served three times as many years in prison as the man who fired the shots in the murder for which she was convicted. By all accounts, she has rehabilitated herself in prison and has the capacity to contribute to society. But surely hers is not the only such case.

And Mr. Grant clearly deserves more than to simply have his case quietly wind its way through the commutation process. There is every reason to believe he is, in fact, innocent and has been unjustly imprisoned for his entire adult life. That should prompt Mr. O'Malley to consider dusting off another power he has rarely employed: the pardon.

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