For Farley Grant, better late than life

O'Malley finally starts to act on inmate serving life for murder he likely didn't commit

March 07, 2012|Dan Rodricks

It appears that the governor of Maryland, a former prosecutor and Baltimore mayor who built his political career on zero-tolerance crime policies, might finally give birth to a conscience in the matter of Mark Farley Grant — an inmate who went to prison 28 years ago for a crime he most likely didn't commit.

It's one thing to be tough on crime, another to be just and fair. In the matter of Farley Grant, the otherwise ambitious governor of Maryland has come late to the latter ... maybe.

It was the summer of 2008 when professors at the University of Maryland School of Law — Gov.Martin O'Malley's alma mater — first sent him a report about Mr. Grant, laying out a credible case that he had been framed for a murder and pleading for clemency.

Mr. Grant was 14 years old when he was arrested in the fatal shooting of another Baltimore teenager on a winter night in 1983. He was 15 when a Baltimore Circuit Court jury convicted him of felony murder; a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

He turned 42 last month.

We found out Tuesday that Mr. O'Malley is "considering" commuting Mr. Grant's sentence, something the Maryland Parole Commission recommended a year ago.

Incredibly, Mr. O'Malley still offers no judgment about Mr. Grant's innocence. The administration behaves as if he is just another of the many Maryland lifers seeking parole. But he's not. He has always insisted on his innocence, and professors and students at the University of Maryland concluded — four years ago — that he had been wrongfully convicted.

Here's why:

•Mardell Brawner, the chief witness against Mr. Grant, testified falsely at trial. He did this, Mr. Brawner said, because relatives of the actual killer took him to Leakin Park, held a gun to his head and vowed to kill him and his family unless he named Mr. Grant as the gunman. In a 2006 affidavit, Mr. Brawner identified another man as the true killer. "Over the years," he said, "I have felt a great deal of guilt about falsely accusing Mark Farley Grant of shooting Michael Gough ... but felt that I had no other choice in light of the threats that had been made against me and my family."

•Another teenage boy confirmed seeing Mr. Grant in a nearby alley at the moment Mr. Gough was shot, which would have made it impossible for Mr. Grant to have been the shooter. The trial jury never heard this testimony.

•Mr. Grant's co-defendant, Mark "Shane" White, who is now deceased, was originally suspected as the killer. But he made a deal with the state; he pleaded guilty to attempted robbery, took a 10-year prison sentence and agreed to testify against Mr. Grant. But before trial, Mr. White failed a polygraph test, a fact that was never revealed to the defense. The prosecutor in the case, Phillip Dantes, now in private practice in Towson, acknowledged this failure in an affidavit in 2007. He also said that he never would have prosecuted Mr. Grant had he known that the key witness against him had been threatened.

 "Mark Grant did not kill Michael Gough," the law school report concluded in its report to the governor. "There is now no question about the fact."

But as far as I can tell, Mr. Grant's case received no special attention, a consequence of Mr. O'Malley's calculated indifference or his politically popular opposition to granting parole to lifers, even those, like Mr. Grant, who had been sentenced with that possibility.

"God is the turner of hearts," Mr. Grant wrote me from Hagerstown just before Thanksgiving 2010. "So why can't he turn Mr. O'Malley or any judge for that matter and allow some low educated black man an opportunity to get some fresh air? I will keep fighting the good fight."

Mr. O'Malley's reluctance to make an expeditious decision about Mr. Grant is troubling. WhenRobert L. Ehrlich Jr.was governor, he decided to commute the sentence of a lifer whose case also had been taken up by the UM law school; the inmate had served 36 years for a killing witnesses later said he did not commit. His case was one of six life sentences Mr. Ehrlich commuted while in office.

A governor should be tough on crime. He should also be just and fair. It's not that hard to balance both, if you keep politics out of justice.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursdays and Sundays. For previous columns on the Mark Grant case, visit the columnist's archives at baltimoresun.com/rodricks.

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