When Renee Hutchins, the University of Maryland law professor, got her client on the phone Thursday afternoon and told him the news — that the governor was going to commute his life sentence — Mark Farley Grant was "largely speechless and completely stunned."
Hutchins said she will visit her client at the state prison in Hagerstown on Monday. By then, Grant should have a complete understanding of what's happening: freedom after nearly 30 years in prison, but no exoneration and no pardon.
This was never simply a case of a convicted killer asking for parole as he approached middle age. There are plenty of such cases.
This was a young man — 14 years old at the time of his arrest in a fatal shooting of another teenager in Baltimore in 1983 — with a credible claim of innocence. He had exhausted all his appeals over two decades since his trial.
Then, as a last resort, he'd asked Gov. Martin O'Malley to look at the facts of his case and consider his petition for clemency. Hutchins, together with another professor, Michael Millemann, and students at the University of Maryland law school (the governor's alma mater) spent four years researching Grant's 1984 conviction. They filed a report with the governor's office in 2008. I caught wind of it a year later, and I first visited Grant in prison in September 2009. My first column on this case, drawing to the public's attention the disturbing facts raised by the law school's impressive investigation, appeared that month.
Each time I asked, a member of the governor's staff said the case was "being reviewed."
But it is clear by now that the governor never acted on the report. He never made a judgment about whether Grant had been wrongfully convicted.
Time went on, month after month, year after year.
From prison, Grant wrote several letters, asserting his innocence and stating his hope that Mr. O'Malley's heart would be turned.
"Remember this, if nothing else," Grant wrote me from prison in November 2010, "our creator, God, Lord of the Universe, created the sun, the moon and the Earth, and gave Earth life and everything in it. God is the turner of hearts."
Still, nothing happened with regard to his claim of innocence.
And with Thursday's executive order, O'Malley remains silent on the question of whether Mark Farley Grant ever belonged in prison.
All the governor has done is commute Grant's sentence — something that would have happened on March 30 in the absence of gubernatorial action. The General Assembly made it so.
Legislators changed the law that gives the Maryland governor final say on parole recommendations for lifers. As of last Oct. 1, when the new law took effect, the governor had to act within 180 days of a Maryland Parole Commission recommendation or the recommendation automatically took effect. Grant's was among those that were still pending on Oct. 1.
O'Malley denied 57 other recommendations.
So, in that regard, I guess Grant should be grateful. He has claimed his innocence since the night of his arrest 29 years ago. He had the help of law professors and students, who put in long hours to investigate the case and to locate witnesses, one of whom said he testified against Grant under threat of death from the real killer's family. Grant's advocates got the governor's attention. Considering that the politically ambitious O'Malley has embraced the "life means life," no-parole policy begun (but since disavowed) by the state's previous Democratic governor, Parris Glendening, Grant is lucky.
But minus action by the governor, who has the authority and power to independently investigate Grant's claim of innocence, Grant leaves prison under a cloud. It is disingenuous of Mr. O'Malley to say he is being just and fair in commuting Grant's sentence while not acting on — perhaps even ignoring — his credible claim of innocence.
Dan Rodricks' column usually appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of the "Midday" show on WYPR-FM. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.