March 14, 2012

MARK FARLEY GRANT was 14 years old in 1984 when he was charged with the shooting death of another teenager during an attempted robbery in Maryland. He was tried and convicted, and was sentenced to life behind bars. A key witness in the case has since recanted his testimony and identified Mr. Grant’s co-defendant as the shooter.

It is welcome news that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is considering commuting Mr. Grant’s sentence. He is also weighing early release for Tamara Settles, who was involved in a planned robbery that turned fatal when her boyfriend shot and killed the man. The boyfriend pleaded guilty and served nine years. Ms. Settles has been imprisoned for nearly three decades.

Sentences of life without parole are often touted as an alternative to capital punishment because they provide certainty to victims and communities; these sentences should not be tinkered with lightly. But we commend Mr. O’Malley, who has yet to grant a clemency request during his six years in office, for finding the courage to revisit cases in which this open-ended sentence may conflict with the ideal of fairness.

In Maryland, only the governor may commute the sentence of an inmate facing life behind bars for murder. The Parole Commission, which has the authority to parole inmates convicted of lesser crimes or facing lesser sentences, has forwarded to Mr. O’Malley 61 cases in which it has recommended commutation for individuals sentenced to life. Mr. O’Malley has rejected 57 of these. Two landed on the governor’s desk in February and are in the early stages of evaluation.

In determining whether to grant clemency, Mr. O’Malley must, among other things, take into account the views of law enforcement officials, the inmate’s role in the crime, the inmate’s age at the time of the crime, the length of time served and the likelihood that the inmate will transgress again.

Public safety must always be a priority. But Mr. Grant and Ms. Settles appear worthy candidates for mercy. Mr. Grant, who approaches his third decade behind bars, was a child at the time of his offense, and serious questions exist about the extent of his culpability. The prosecutor who took his case to trial supports clemency, and the current state’s attorney does not object.

Ms. Settles, now 53, has successfully completed an extended drug rehabilitation program, earned an associate’s degree and is pursuing her bachelor’s degree, according to The Post’s Aaron C. Davis.

Even if granted clemency, neither Ms. Settles nor Mr. Grant would be released until the state has crafted a transition plan with programs to help them reintegrate into society. Both would be subject to supervision.