Since his arrest as a young teenager 29 years ago, Mark Farley Grant has never wavered: He did not kill Michael Gough that winter night in West Baltimore.
On Thursday, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed an executive order commuting the sentence of Grant and a Washington, D.C., woman also serving life for murder — the first time O'Malley has used the power during his tenure.
Grant's attorney hopes he will walk out of prison before Christmas, "if not long before."
O'Malley "had not to this point granted any clemency requests, so I am extremely grateful to him for exercising his ability to do so in Mark's case," said Renee M. Hutchins, who runs the law clinic at the University of Maryland's Carey School of Law. "I'm firmly convinced of Mark's innocence, so I could not be more delighted."
Interviewed at a political event in Annapolis, O'Malley said he acted now because of a deadline set by the General Assembly to make decisions in such cases. He said he took no particular satisfaction in granting the two their freedom, adding, "Nothing that happens is ever going to bring back the two lives that were taken."
O"Malley's general counsel, Elizabeth Harris, said that in addition to the commutations of Grant and Tamara Settles, who was convicted of murder in Prince George's County, 57 applications were rejected and two are pending.
Grant, now 42, was convicted of felony murder at age 15 after being accused of shooting another teen and stealing his coat in a 1983 street robbery. In 2004, students and law professors took on Grant's case, taking three years to compile a report that concluded there was "no question" that Grant was innocent.
A key witness recanted, and the trial prosecutor asked O'Malley to commute the sentence. The parole commission determined Grant did not constitute a threat to public safety.
But a decision on Grant's case was slow. O'Malley did not act on any clemency requests for his first few years in office, irking some state legislators.
"God is the turner of hearts," Grant wrote in 2010 to Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, who has been chronicling his efforts to gain release. "I will continue to stay afloat from being sunken in this world's web of deception and keep fighting the good fight."
During his time behind bars, Grant has earned degrees and enrolled in various vocational programs, taking a particular liking to a meat-cutting job with the Maryland Correctional Enterprises. His mother and brother have died.
"His most immediate desire is to reconnect with his family — to get home and give everybody a hug," Hutchins said.
The decision to grant clemency was set in motion earlier this year, when officials asked current city prosecutors if they objected to the release. This month, the state posted notice that the governor was considering freeing Grant and Settles.
With the executive order, Grant's sentence was revised from life to life with all but 45 years suspended. He will not be released immediately. His case now goes back to the parole commission, which will work to develop a transition plan. After release, he will remain under supervision.
A commutation is different from a pardon, in which the crime is forgiven and the penalty is canceled, wiping the inmate's record clean.
Across the country, some governors have faced scrutiny of these decisions in recent years — a man whose sentence was commuted by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee later killed four police officers, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was criticized for pardoning nearly 200 people on his last day in office.
Aides to O'Malley have said the review process was painstaking and the governor did not approach the issue lightly. They have chafed at the suggestion that the governor was purposely avoiding the commutation issue, and said the decision to pursue the cases of Grant and Settles did not reflect a policy shift.
Maryland is one of only three states that grant the governor the power to reject recommendations from parole commissions. In every other state, the complete authority rests with the commission.
Successive Maryland governors have paroled fewer and fewer lifers amid a growing number of requests. Gov. Marvin Mandel released 92 convicts serving life sentences during his term; Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has since lamented his "life means life" stance, freed six lifers, all of them because of medical reasons. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. released six inmates.
Students and law professors spent more than three years combing over the facts in Grant's case and interviewing witnesses, finding that a key witness had lied at trial because relatives of co-defendant Shane White had threatened to shoot him unless he named Grant as the gunmen. Another witness, who was never called to testify, said Grant was with him in a nearby alley when the shooting occurred.
White, who received a 10-year prison sentence for attempted robbery and testified against Grant, has since died.
The original prosecutor on the case, Phillip Dantes, who is now an attorney in private practice in Towson, said he would have approached the case differently, based on new evidence about Grant's involvement.
"Whether he was involved in the homicide or not, there's enough doubt combined with the jail time he's done for the governor to" commute Grant's sentence, Dantes said earlier this month.
Said Hutchins, "This case has been a labor of love — a lot of hard work, a lot of late nights,"
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An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the sentences the inmates were serving. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.