It is, as Father Eugene Brake sees it, a matter of simple justice that the authorities should commute Arthur Moody's sentence and send him home.
Moody, 26, was one of two inmates who were badly burned in separate explosions at Lorton Reformatory early last December. The other victim, Anthony Johnson, 25, died Christmas Eve. Moody is at the Washington Hospital Center, largely recovered from second-and third- degree burns over 36 percent of his body.
"From a medical point of view, they say he doesn't need to be in the hospital any longer, and in fact could have been released six or eight weeks ago," Brake said the other day. "They say it would be best for his physical rehabilitation if he were released. The combination of his medical treatment and the round-the- clck guards is costing the city something like $25,000 a month as nearly as I can figure it. But the hospital is keeping him because otherwise they would have to send him back to Lorton, which, given the nature of his wounds, would expose him to infection and all kinds of problems."
Nice little dilemma, isn't it?
Not for Father Brake. Moody's sentence should be commuted to time already served, and he should be sent home. "My contention is that Moody and Johnson were burned through no fault of their own. The indications are that the explosion was caused by methane gas from a huge landfill dump across the road from the Youth Center. The institution failed in its responsibility to protect the men's lives while they were there. The least they could do is to consider the scale balanced."
The authorities keep telling Brake, a volunteer chaplain at Lorton for six years before his current stint at a Washington halfway house, that it isn't quite that simple. The prison has no authority to commute a sentence. U.S. Attorney Joseph DiGenova sent the priest to the U.S. pardons attorney, who told him he had a pretty good case, but said it would be "around August" before they got to it.
Moody, who was in Lorton as a parole violator on a car-theft charge (the original sentence was for grand larceny), is due for release in August anyway.
"The pardon attorney told me I should go out into the community and get endorsements from people attesting to Arthur's character and all of that," Brake said. "I don't think I should have to do that. The Justice Department knows enough already. Arthur was never a dangerous person. His main problem is extremely low self-esteem. He's never done anything violent. Why can't they just acknowledge that his injuries are worth more than the eight months he has left to serve and just send him home? I'd find him a place to stay."
Since it has not been determined whether responsibility for the explosion lies with the District of Columbia, which runs the reformatory, or with Fairfax County, where the dump is located, Brake thinks the two jurisdictions should split Moody's medical bills.
But the first priority is to secure his release, and the 50-year-old priest hasn't been able to figure out how to do that. At first he concentrated on the symbolism of the dump itself -- "garbage for garbage," he called it -- and spent three days at the landfill, courting arrest for trying to block the garbage trucks. Now he's focusing on commutation for Moody and (posthumously) for Johnson.
"I have no desire to be front and center on this thing," he said, "but I'll tell you this. If they try to put him back in jail, I'll be there before he will."