Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) on Thursday commuted the prison terms of inmates serving life sentences for murder — a first for the governor, who won the state’s top office on a reputation as a tough-on-crime, big-city mayor.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (Patrick Semansky/AP)

O’Malley also commuted the sentence of Mark Farley Grant, a Baltimore man whose conviction for a shooting in the mid-1980s has gained national attention since the only independent witness in the case recanted his testimony. Grant was 14 when he allegedly shot another teenager and stole his coat in a Baltimore street robbery in 1983.

Renee Hutchins who has been Grant’s attorney since 2005, told The Associated Press that she spoke to Grant earlier in the day when she learned about the commutation. She described him as “absolutely speechless.”

“He is overwhelmed and delighted,” Hutchins told the AP. “I think that after 29 years of saying so consistently, ‘I didn’t do this. I don’t belong here,’ he is overwhelmed that his plea has finally been heard.”

Technically, Grant’s life term was commuted to a term of life with all but 45 years suspended. Settles’ life term was commuted to a term of life with all but 40 years suspended. Aides said the intent of the governor’s order is to see the two released as quickly as the state’s Parole Commission can do so safely.

The commission, which recommended commutations, will be responsible for setting a timeline for release. The governor’s executive orders, however, laid out several pre- and post-release conditions for the inmates.

O’Malley’s decision marks a major break with one of the clearest policies that he and the state’s previous Democratic governor had maintained – essentially that a life sentence means exactly that.

O’Malley and former governor Parris N. Glendening maintained bans on commuting sentences of inmates convicted of murder. Former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) had commuted and pardoned hundreds during his term, a small fraction of them had been convicted of murder.

In the Prince George’s case, O’Malley prominently noted a profound discrepancy between the prison term served by the man who pulled trigger and the woman who initiated the crime.

In November 1984, Settles, then 26, met a Southeast Washington man in the Silver Star Night Club on E Street NW. Settles “struck up a friendship” with Charles Fowler, then 53 and left the bar with him, according to police.

Settles lured Fowler to a street in Hyattsville where her boyfriend was waiting. That man, Herman Ray Rockingham III, “opened the driver’s door and with gun in hand fired two shots at the victim and at the same time demanded the victim’s wallet,” the police report said.

One of the shots struck Fowler in the head, and he died five days later in Prince George’s Hospital.

Rockingham, the shooter, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years to life. He later was able to get that reduced and was released after about nine years. Settles chose to go to trial and was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Now 53, Settles has served three times the number of years as Rockingham. From behind bars, she has completed 12 years of drug addiction therapy, earned an associate’s degree, worked as a volunteer mentor and is taking classes toward a bachelor’s degree from Morgan State University, according to the governor’s office.

O’Malley cautioned against reading too much into his first commutations.

O’Malley previously denied 57 requests from the parole commission to free inmates; 47 of those were commutation requests; 4 were parole recommendations and 4 were based on the medical condition of inmates serving life sentences. O’Malley had previously granted two medical paroles for inmates who were not serving life sentences.

Asked if the new commutations suggested a softening of his stance, or that the public should expect more to come: “I wouldn’t say that,” O’Malley said.