Ehrlich Prolific in Granting Clemency

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. considers justice issues part of his job:
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. considers justice issues part of his job: "I know at times the system doesn't work even though there are a lot of safeguards." (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has been unusually active in his use of executive clemency powers, pardoning scores of convicts and commuting the sentences of five who were serving life sentences for murder.

Since taking office in 2003, Ehrlich (R) has granted clemency to 190 former convicts, reversing a two-decade trend among state and national chief executives, who have largely shelved their power to issue pardons.

Many of his peers consider the practice politically risky, but Ehrlich said he considers it part of his constitutional duty. He has invoked his authority to clean the slate most often for those who have, in the aftermath of a youthful indiscretion, lived exemplary lives.

For example, a series of pardons in recent weeks enabled a 29-year-old Cumberland man to receive a gun permit despite a 1998 arrest in a fistfight and a Hagerstown man, 56, to get a job as a security guard despite a 21-year-old battery conviction.

But the governor has also tackled cases that his predecessor wouldn't touch: a backlog of clemency appeals from lifers who had convinced state parole officials that they were ready to be released. "You have these situations where race may have played a part, insufficient counsel may have played a part, where the shooter is out and the accomplice is still in," Ehrlich said. "Those needed to be addressed."

His pardons touched people across the state and across party lines.

Ehrlich's political advisers cringed when he began holding monthly meetings to review pardon applications, but, he said, his law school training and his marriage to a public defender instilled in him a sense of duty.

"This is what governors do," Ehrlich said. "Criminal justice is something I'm trained in, and I believe in it. But I know at times the system doesn't work even though there are a lot of safeguards."

Ehrlich's Democratic predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, pardoned or commuted the sentences of one-fifth as many felons in his first term and refused to release lifers, maintaining a "life means life" stance throughout his tenure. His reluctance is not uncommon among governors. Nor is it inconsistent with the federal trend. President Bush has largely sidelined the practice, issuing 99 pardons since he took office, the fewest of any modern president.

"It appears that the only two incumbent chief executives who approach their pardoning responsibilities with any amount of proper respect are Governor Robert Ehrlich of Maryland and President Josiah Bartlet of 'The West Wing,' " wrote Margaret Colgate Love, a Democrat who was President Bill Clinton's pardon attorney, in a paper published in January by the American Bar Association.

In an interview, Love said that ever since the Willie Horton episode -- when an attack on a Maryland couple by a furloughed prisoner helped doom the presidential ambitions of then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) in 1988 -- politicians have considered pardoned criminals ticking time bombs, capable of destroying a career with a single act.

Glendening said he had been concerned about maintaining a consistent policy. With most pardon petitions coming from former felons who wanted guns, he said, he "had real concerns" about putting firearms in their hands.


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