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A Stain on Maryland

Walter Arvinger spent 36 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

By Lee Hockstader
Tuesday, November 30, 2004; Page A19

CUMBERLAND, Md. -- Walter Arvinger walked out of prison yesterday, a free man for the first time in 36 years. Locked up in 1968 for a murder he didn't commit, he was released by order of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who commuted his sentence last Friday. His decision, Ehrlich said, is a reflection of "my view that Maryland's criminal justice system must be tough but fair." Hurray to the governor for doing the right thing. But a more honest epilogue to Arvinger's case would be: "His conviction was a travesty of justice, and his incarceration for more than three decades was a scandal. His case represents a stain on Maryland's criminal justice system."

Arvinger is 55, a taciturn father and grandfather whose neatly trimmed beard has gone to salt-and-pepper. When I met him a couple of weeks ago, an ebony rash had spread the length of his arms, legs and torso, and he was more preoccupied with his health than with any immediate possibility of release, which seemed remote. He hoped one day to live at home again with his grandmother, who is 105, and his mother, who is 76. But if anyone had reason to squelch the faintest glimmer of optimism, it was Walter Arvinger.

(Undated Family Photo)

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At the time of his arrest, Arvinger was 19 years old, employed and church-going. He'd been a slow learner at school but had a clean record, with no hint of drugs or violence. His chief mistake was one of timing: On a rainy night in October 1968, he was in a house in Baltimore with four other teenagers who talked about mugging someone -- "yoking" a man, they called it. A few minutes later, they did just that, and one of the youths beat 52-year-old James R. Brown to death with a baseball bat.

Arvinger played no more than a cameo role in the murder. The state's chief witness, a 14-year-old boy named Paul Gillis, testified that Arvinger had walked out of the house before or just after the talk about "yoking" began, and took no part in the conversation. Arvinger went up the street to a store and bought some cake. A few minutes later, when the other youths raced out of the house and attacked Brown, Arvinger spotted them and ran after them. Afterward, when the boys divvied up the man's pocket change, Arvinger may have received a few cents, although he denied it.

The justice system started failing Walter Arvinger from the get-go. His trial lasted half a day. His lawyer, retained for a few hundred dollars in the days before Maryland had a public defender's office, was a colorful, careless character named Morris Lee Kaplan, who boasted that he carried no more documentation to court than he could fit in his coat pocket. Kaplan also had a conflict of interest: Although he had managed to win an acquittal on murder charges for one of Arvinger's co-defendants in a separate trial, he did not permit him to testify on Arvinger's behalf -- possibly for fear that the other boy could expose himself to robbery charges.

Inexplicably, the judge found Arvinger guilty of first-degree murder, inferring that he may have stood ready to help in the crime, or acted as a lookout. He reached his verdict despite the absence of testimony that Arvinger helped in any way or was a lookout, and despite the fact that Arvinger had at first walked away from the scene of the crime, which Kaplan failed to point out at the trial. The judge was "pained," he said, to sentence Arvinger to prison "for the balance of your natural life."

Although he was the least culpable of the five youths present at the crime, Arvinger was the most harshly treated. Two others served no prison time and one was out in six or seven years. The only other defendant to receive a life sentence was the one who wielded the baseball bat; his term was shortened in 1973 by the governor, Marvin Mandel, and he was released in the early 1990s.

Only Arvinger languished behind bars, decade after decade. His lawyer dropped his case without pursuing it through the appeals process. But if the courts had deemed Arvinger unfit for society, the Maryland corrections system knew better. In prison he had a spotless record, earned a high school diploma and taught welding to other inmates. For four years starting in 1989, he was allowed out on work release, living in a minimum-security dormitory in Baltimore, reporting to a construction site at the Inner Harbor and compiling an exemplary employment record. One weekend a month, he was allowed to visit his elderly grandmother and mother.

In 1993 even that measure of compassion was yanked away when another Maryland lifer on work release, Rodney Stokes, shot his ex-girlfriend and then himself. In a dyspeptic response, Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered all 134 lifers on work release, including Arvinger, rounded up and returned to prison. And two years later Glendening declared that as far as he was concerned, everyone serving a life sentence in the Free State could rot behind bars. "If you want to term this more as retribution . . . it's exactly that," the governor said. When the state parole commission voted unanimously in 1998 to release Arvinger, Glendening ignored the recommendation. For the past several years, Arvinger has spent 14 hours a day locked up in a small, two-man cell in Western Maryland.

It was just last year that Arvinger got the first break of his life. He sent a brief, handwritten letter to Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, and Millemann became interested. "I've seen hundreds of claims of innocence, most of them without merit," Millemann said. "This one had merit."

Ehrlich, who has made good on pledges to revive the governor's powers of clemency in a number of cases, has righted a profound wrong. He cannot repay Arvinger for his lost years, but he has restored some measure of dignity.

Yesterday afternoon, I called Arvinger as he rode home to Baltimore. He chuckled when I asked him about his plans. "It feels like I got brand new shoes on my feet," he said. "I'm ready to do a little walking, man."

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address is hockstaderl@washpost.com.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company