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.
"It would be odd, in a way, to say we should restrict the use of guns and then go out and issue a bunch of pardons," Glendening said.
But Ehrlich did not share that objection. He viewed people such as Joseph Stafford, a deer hunter who was turned away by a salesclerk last year when he tried to buy a pistol at a Cumberland gun shop for target shooting, as deserving of a second chance.
Eight years earlier, a scuffle at a mall earned Stafford a second-degree assault conviction. If he wanted a gun permit, the clerk told him, he would need an executive pardon. Three weeks ago, after a long application and interview process, that is what Stafford received.
Other cases were more involved.
Montgomery County council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), who is also a University of Maryland law professor and candidate for attorney general, said he was overseeing a criminal justice clinic five years ago when he discovered 30 inmates who had "fallen through a crack in the system." In 1994, the General Assembly reduced the sentence for daytime housebreaking from 25 years to three years but did not allow the change to apply retroactively.
Perez and his students petitioned Glendening on behalf of the 30 men with 25-year terms on the grounds that others committing the same crime were serving only a fraction of the time because they were convicted after the legislature's action.
Glendening rebuffed Perez's appeal. But soon after Ehrlich took office, Perez said, one of the governor's aides invited him to reapply. Ehrlich has since commuted the sentences of three of the men. And he signed a law that gave the others a one-year window in which to seek parole. One of them was Clifford Sewell, who, Perez said, "is now employed and living in Baltimore."
"Governor Ehrlich commuted his sentence, and I give him a lot of credit for that," Perez said.
Ehrlich has also reversed Glendening's "life means life" policy.
Walter H. Arvinger was 19 when he was arrested in 1968 in the beating death of James R. Brown. Witnesses gave conflicting testimony about whether Arvinger was part of a group that planned to rob Brown on a Baltimore street, but he never held the bat used to kill Brown. After a one-day trial, Arvinger was sentenced to life in prison.
The Maryland Parole Commission first endorsed his release in 1998, noting that everyone else involved in the attack was out, including the man who wielded the bat. But Glendening never considered it. He said his administration's prohibition on commuting life sentences stemmed from his discomfort with the death penalty -- and the only way the public would be willing to abandon the death penalty, he said, was if life sentences were irrevocable.
Ehrlich's decision to commute sentences in that case and other killings has not brought any outcry from victims' advocates.
One reason, said Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center Inc., is that Ehrlich sought input from victims' relatives before granting clemency.
Ehrlich is an aberration among those governors endowed with clemency powers, statistics show. Governors in Louisiana and Michigan have, between them, issued a single pardon.
In Virginia, Mark R. Warner (D) issued 53 when he was governor, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has signed one. Only two of Warner's involved people serving long felony terms. Both pardons resulted from DNA evidence that exonerated the convicts.
Most politicians, Love said, consider pardons too risky in a world where voters have responded best to those who talk tough about crime.
Pennsylvania's Mark S. Singel is one who learned that lesson the hard way. Singel (D), who had served eight years as lieutenant governor, began his bid for governor in 1994 by highlighting his service as chairman of the state's Board of Pardons to prove his mettle on crime. Of the 2,614 applications he reviewed, eight had been granted.
But a month before the election, one of the eight people pardoned was charged in the kidnapping, rape and robbery of a New York woman. Within days, Singel's opponent, Republican Tom Ridge, aired a television ad in which the narrator said: "In 1992, Mark Singel votes to free a murderer. Now the same man is arrested again. . . . Just a mistake or too liberal on crime?"
Ehrlich hasn't talked much about his pardons as he has campaigned for reelection against Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), except before a group of black church leaders last month.
Ehrlich's chief counsel, Jervis S. Finney, said the governor is mindful of the political risks but has established a screening process that borders on the obsessive.
Applications are first reviewed by the state Parole Commission. Applicants who pass muster are then checked by a team from Finney's office. Two lawyers dig into their pasts, subject them to lie detector tests, read transcripts, talk to victims and prosecutors, and conduct a psychological battery that Finney said will provide the governor with the numerical odds that the applicants will commit other crimes.
The process seems to have worked. According to the state Division of Parole and Probation, only one of Ehrlich's clemency recipients has had another brush with the system: Timothy Branham, pardoned June 5 for a breaking and entering conviction, was arrested in a drug possession case later that month.
Even for Stafford, whose offense did not result in jail time, the investigation was thorough, the deer hunter said. An investigator interviewed him at length, called his relatives and past employers, and asked him to submit a 26-page application.
"It took a year," Stafford said. "I guess I could see the risk for [Ehrlich]. Some people, I'm sure, don't deserve it. But I'm glad he did it for me."