Montgomery County police say the judicial system has been inexcusably lenient to the man convicted of killing an undercover officer more than three decades ago during a drug sting. But some others see him as living proof that even murderers can lead productive lives after leaving prison.
Lamaas F. Stewart-Bey, now 52, fatally shot Montgomery narcotics officer William P. "Mickey" Conboy in 1973, then served about seven years in prison. He remained on parole until last month, always facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars for violating even minor conditions.
In a decision that outraged many Montgomery police officers, including the chief, a three-judge panel released him from parole Oct. 14, putting him instead on unsupervised probation for five years, with yearly criminal background checks.
"I find it appalling that this guy is out," Montgomery Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said in a recent interview. "This is just so unjust. Police officers understand the risks of their job. They understand that they have to put themselves in harm's way. They want to believe the public cares about them enough that if they were ever in harm's way, it would be looked at as something other than a regular assault."
Stewart-Bey, who declined to comment to The Washington Post, said in court that he wants to live as freely as possible in order to focus on steering potential criminals away from delinquency.
"I did an egregious, heinous thing when I was 20 years old," Stewart-Bey said in court. "Since that particular time, I've been remorseful and certainly regret what I did."
The tale, which police now call a flagrant example of justice gone awry and supporters of Stewart-Bey's describe as a success story, began on a December night as a team of mostly young undercover Montgomery officers headed to a Holiday Inn on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring hoping to leave with two suspected drug dealers in handcuffs.
Conboy, a Vietnam War veteran, husband and father of a toddler, approached a hotel room on the 10th floor with a supervisor, Sgt. James Elkins, and a bundle of cash -- "flash money" in police lingo. Four colleagues were waiting inside an adjacent room, and others were standing by in the lobby.
Inside the room were Stewart-Bey, a college student, and an accomplice, Mark M. Manley, 22. Stewart-Bey had a small, five-shot revolver.
The officers were posing as drug buyers. The men in the room, police later determined, intended to rob their would-be clients; the white powdery substance turned out to be a mix of flour and sugar.
Officers in the room next door put their ears to the wall as Conboy, 25, and Elkins, then 30, entered the room.
"As soon as the door was shut, shots rang out," recalled Al Fagles, a retired Montgomery police major and a narcotics officer at the time. "We all ran into the room. Mickey Conboy stumbled out of the room with no color in his face, walked three feet and stumbled on the floor."
Elkins was shot twice in the upper body but survived.
Manley was fatally shot. Stewart-Bey surrendered at the scene.
Conboy was rushed to Holy Cross Hospital. Fagles, who rode with him in the ambulance, said he will never forget the sight of Conboy's young wife, JoAnne, walking into the emergency room that night.
"I remember seeing Mickey's wife, with the baby in hand, walk into the room where Mickey was being worked on," Fagles said. "Seeing his young wife walk into the hospital with her daughter, never to see Mickey again. It's one of those images that don't go away."
A grand jury indicted Stewart-Bey on Jan. 9, 1974. He pleaded guilty May 2 and was later sentenced to life in prison plus concurrent 15- and 10-year terms for two of the counts.
In January 1978, he was transferred to the Patuxent Institution, a state correctional facility whose parole board at the time could release inmates it deemed rehabilitated, regardless of their sentence. Patuxent's Institutional Board of Review paroled him in June 1981. Shortly after Stewart-Bey's release, Patuxent lost its authority to parole convicts regardless of their sentences -- a change triggered partly by an outcry from Montgomery prosecutors.
Stewart-Bey's parole was revoked almost 20 years later, when Patuxent officials learned that his wife had called Baltimore police in 1999 alleging domestic violence. He was neither arrested nor charged in that incident. But Stewart-Bey was again booked into Patuxent after officials determined that he failed to promptly notify them about the run-in and did not keep them abreast of his relationship problems -- two parole violations.
He was released eight months later after Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure ruled that the parole revocation had been "arbitrary and capricious."
Stewart-Bey returned to his job as an equal opportunity specialist with the Social Security Administration's Office of Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity, where he has worked for more than two decades. But as a Patuxent parolee for life, the threat of incarceration loomed, said Gary Bair, Stewart-Bey's attorney. This year, Stewart-Bey sought a sentence-review hearing before a three-judge panel in Montgomery.
In court documents, Stewart-Bey said he had received a college degree, worked as a counselor for juvenile sex offenders and helped found and administer a mentoring program for fifth-graders in Baltimore. His motion included a letter from Baltimore Circuit Court Judge David W. Young, who described himself as a personal friend of Stewart-Bey's and noted that the letter was unsolicited.
"Lamaas Stewart-Bey is an extraordinary human being who has managed to avail himself of all the available opportunities [to] overcome his past while continuing to repay his debt to society by making positive, substantive and meaningful contributions," Young wrote.
John McCarthy, the Montgomery deputy state's attorney who unsuccessfully tried to quash the petition for a sentence-review hearing, argued in court that Stewart-Bey did not deserve yet another break.
"We're looking at a death penalty-qualifying case," he said, later adding that Stewart-Bey probably would have faced far harsher punishment under current laws and sentencing guidelines.
Ann S. Harrington, administrative judge in Montgomery Circuit Court, and Circuit Court Judges D. Warren Donohue and Michael D. Mason placed Stewart-Bey instead on unsupervised probation at the hearing last month.
County police officers say they cannot forget Conboy's killing. The department has lost 14 officers in the line of duty; Conboy was the eighth.
"When we raised our right hand, especially in narcotics, we knew that such a night could happen," Fagles said. "And it did."