The murder trial lasted less than a day. When it was over, Walter Arvinger -- poor, black and represented by a lawyer who bragged that his case files were so thin he could carry them in a coat pocket -- was sentenced to life in prison.
That was in 1969.
Walter Arvinger, 55, in his West Baltimore home, had his life sentence commuted by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
(Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
Two weeks ago, Arvinger, 55, of Baltimore walked out of prison a free man, his life sentence having been commuted by Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). With the exception of paroles for the elderly or the gravely ill, Arvinger was the state's first "lifer" in more than a decade to be released by executive clemency .
Although his legal representation at trial was lackluster, Arvinger's cause over the past 18 months has been championed aggressively by a law clinic at the University of Maryland that was established recently to exonerate wrongly convicted inmates.
Similar clinics at other law schools use DNA evidence to challenge convictions, often many years after trial. The most prominent among them, a clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, says it has exonerated 153 inmates nationwide since 1992.
The clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law operates on a logical extension of that model: If courts can be shown to have erred in cases in which DNA becomes available after trial, they also must have erred in some cases in which DNA was never available.
The clinic in Baltimore seeks to win freedom for wrongly convicted inmates who cannot be cleared by DNA evidence. Arvinger's case was the clinic's first.
"Walter Arvinger has spent 36 years locked up for something he didn't do, something he never should have been tried for in the first place," said Michael A. Millemann, a professor and the clinic's founder. "It's an immense tragedy."
One October night in 1968, Arvinger, then 19, and four acquaintances gathered at a house in Baltimore. The conversation turned to mugging -- or, as they called it, "yoking" -- a man.
A short time later, they robbed James R. Brown, 52, and beat him to death in an attack that netted little more than pocket change.
The five men were soon in custody. It was Arvinger's first arrest.
Lawyer Morris Lee Kaplan took the case for $350. Kaplan, a colorful character in Baltimore legal circles, was renowned for bragging that he kept case files thin enough to carry in a coat pocket, Millemann said.
The state's key witness, the youngest of the five, testified that Arvinger was not present during the yoking conversation. The witness, Paul Gillis, corroborated Arvinger's claim that he went to a convenience store to buy pie and did not participate in the planning.
Arvinger was not present when the mugging began, witnesses agreed. Gillis said Arvinger, returning from the convenience store, spotted the other four leaving the house and ran after them.