Widow recalls life without husband as his killer goes free

Court of Appeals ruling will affect victims throughout Md.

July 13, 2013|By Ian Duncan, Yvonne Wenger and Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

As he lay on the floor of his Southwest Baltimore grocery store, Benjamin Rubin's last words to his wife were "I've been shot."

Moments earlier on that April day in 1972, Welford Monroe and another young man stormed into B&S Food Market, ordered Rubin to empty his pockets and stole $125 from the cash register. Schoolchildren were huddled in the back of the store when Monroe shot Rubin in the chest.

On his way out, Monroe turned and fired his gun at Shirley Rubin. She was leaning against a wire newspaper rack to steady herself when the bullet went through her arm and lodged in her hip.

Shirley Rubin, now 89, has been forced to confront those memories again with the recent, unexpected release of Monroe. Dozens like her could find themselves back in court for cases they thought were resolved as Maryland's legal system grapples with decades-old mistakes cited in a ruling by the state's top court.

"Welford Monroe is going to be free. Benjamin Rubin is lying in his grave and I am walking around with a bullet in my hip — I want to know: Who is being punished here?" Rubin said Friday at her home in Mount Washington. "I hope it haunts him because I can never, ever forgive him."

Monroe, who was 17 at the time of the murder, spent 41 years in prison. He was released last month as a result of a 2012 Court of Appeals decision that provides the possibility of new trials — and potential release — for as many as 200 people serving life sentences.

In an appeal brought by a man convicted of killing a Hagerstown police officer, the court ruled that before 1980 jurors were given improper instructions, allowing them to disregard the concept of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

At the June hearing at which Monroe was given his freedom, he stood at the defense table in a Baltimore courtroom. Clad in a blue-gray jumpsuit, he looked toward Rubin and asked for forgiveness.

"There's nothing I can do to take back what I've done. And I am so sorry," Monroe told the widow, his voice breaking before a long pause.

He turned to face her.

"I wish I could find the words to comfort you, but I can't," said Monroe, who had confessed to the incident, according to court records. "I hope someday you'll forgive me for what I've done. And I am truly sorry."

As part of the terms for release, Monroe agreed to plead guilty to the murder of Benjamin Rubin, assaulting with the intent to murder Shirley Rubin, and robbery with a deadly weapon; he was put on probation for five years. After two years, Monroe can ask to move to unsupervised probation, but if he violates the conditions of his release he could be returned to prison.

As they review cases affected by the Court of Appeals ruling, prosecutors around the state say they'll fight to keep violent criminals locked up. But in some cases — when evidence has been lost over the years, or if a prisoner has shown model behavior — the state will enter into agreements for the prisoners' release.

Monroe's prison records show one minor infraction in the last 35 years, according to court documents. He was cited in 1998 for having a piece of cardboard attached to the ceiling of his cell for hanging clothes.

While in prison, Monroe earned a GED certificate, completed courses from Anne Arundel Community College and has trained for nearly 7,500 hours as a machine operator. He's gained other skills as a cook and baker, plumber and carpenter.

He lived in a halfway house on a work-release program prior to 1993, when the state ordered inmates on life sentences back to prison.

Neither Monroe nor his lawyer could be reached for comment.

Rubin did not know about Monroe's work-release, and said through tears that she'd been by promised by the prosecutor who tried the case that he would never be free.

Sandra O'Connor, who was working in the city at the time but went on to become Baltimore County state's attorney, said Monroe and others deserved to be imprisoned for what they had done. Whether they should be released depends on their records since then, she said.

"My feeling is it really depends on what they had done while they're in prison, and I can't answer that for any of these guys," she added.

Reminded of her pledge that Monroe would spend his life behind bars, O'Connor said, "I guess I did say that to Mrs. Rubin, and I apologize that he got out."

Rubin said she's grateful for the work of Baltimore prosecutors who have handled the case since the Court of Appeals ruling.

But to her, the judges put the victims last. Rubin said her husband of 26 years grew up poor and worked for all he had. He was a veteran, a father of two, and a good and kind man known to neighborhood children as "Mr. Ben."

After his death, Rubin said, she lost the store. She had to find a new way to support herself and the couple's children, who were students at the University of Maryland when their father was murdered.

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