Maryland governor isn't likely to decide lifers parole issue

April 30, 2011|By LLOYD WATERS

While doing some recent research in regard to my family tree, I came across a character from the late 1920s who shot and killed a prohibition agent on the road from Boonsboro. I even discovered a transcript of the trial.

This individual was given a life sentence in March 1927 and was pardoned in 1942 by Maryland Gov. Herbert O'Connor, after serving 15 years.

During his incarceration, he painted a picture of Christ holding a lamb that still hangs on the wall of the Samples Manor Church, just a stone's throw from Dargan. He committed no further crimes during his life and died in New Jersey in 1949.

Why am I sharing this story with you? I want to suggest to you that some lifers can go straight if pardoned or paroled from prison for a violent crime.

When I began my career in corrections in the late 60s, it was fairly common practice that individuals with a life sentence, after serving a portion of their time, could be and were occasionally paroled.

Is everyone a good risk for parole? Not necessarily.

Is it right for a governor to abstain from making a decision in regard to a lifer's opportunity for parole? I don't think so, but there are some obvious political reasons for avoiding this responsibility.

In 1988, when Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was running for president of the United States, an individual by the name of Willie Horton delivered a significant blow to Dukakis' aspirations.

Horton, as you might remember, was serving life without parole for a 1974 murder when, in June 1986, he failed to return from a "liberal weekend furlough program" supported by Dukakis. While on escape, he raped a woman from Maryland after stabbing her fiancé.

Needless to say, the electorate assumed that since Dukakis could not make better decisions than supporting a liberal furlough program for the likes of Willie Horton, they wondered about his ability to be president.

Presidential candidates will always be closely scrutinized for past decisions.

Mitt Romney, who is stirring support for another run at the White House, has a similar dilemma.

In the 2008 race, it was reported that Romney appointed a judge in Massachusetts who released Daniel Tavares Jr. from jail on his personal recognizance while he was awaiting trial on charges of assaulting two correctional officers. Tavares had previously served 16 years for killing his mother.

While out on personal recognizance status, Tavares shot to death two Washington state newlyweds.

More recently, a man named Maurice Clemmons allegedly shot and killed four police officers in Washington state. He was granted clemency in 2000 by then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

As these stories continue to unfold, it is quite obvious that many individuals with political aspirations are more reluctant to have the same grit and integrity of a Herbert O'Connor. Most see the political shortcomings of making a parole decision involving lifers.

While I was warden at Maryland Correctional Institution, I appeared in front of a parole board to recommend parole for three individuals. None of the inmates was serving a life sentence and none, to my knowledge, has presented any serious problems to law enforcement since being released.

Some politicians believe in getting elected at all costs. And they are the ones who will avoid making decisions like those made with Horton, Tavares or Clemmons.

Should Maryland's governor decide if a lifer should be paroled? I believe that he should. But it appears doubtful that he will.

Look for a parole board or commission to make these decisions in the future. That way, if the decision turns out to be a bad one, the governor and the electorate will have someone else to blame.

Lloyd "Pete" Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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