The headline scrawled across the Web site of the Prince George’s County Young Democrats last week was intended to be provocative, taking aim at Gov. Martin O’Malley for his refusal to let a reformed drug dealer fill an open seat in the state legislature.
“Governor O’Malley, do you believe in redemption?”
The young Democrats were rallying support for Gregory A. Hall. Jailed two decades ago on drug and murder charges (the latter later dropped), Hall seemed poised last month to become a state lawmaker, realizing the potential once seemingly lost in his life. Until O’Malley stepped in.
But the blog post imploring the governor to appoint Hall said as much about O’Malley (D) and how crime and punishment remain complex issues for the Maryland governor.
As the young Democrats framed it, does O’Malley — who has built a national reputation espousing party messages of hope, change and moving forward — believe in redemption? How about, specifically, for a person like Hall, who in his 20s was in a gun battle that left a 13-year-old dead?
The answer, the governor’s record suggests, is not really.
In O’Malley’s six years as governor, 640 of 690 requests for pardons and scores of requests for commutations have died on his desk.
The figures stands in stark contrast to his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who in one term pardoned or commuted the sentences of 249, including several serving life sentences for murder. In fact, O’Malley, is on pace to have the fewest number of pardons of any Maryland governor in decades, and fewer than half the number of Parris N. Glendening, the state’s last Democratic governor.
Critics say O’Malley, who has broad discretion over parole of the state’s worst offenders, has also effectively turned any sentence of life with the possibility of parole in Maryland into life without parole.
The legislature forced him to begin acting this year within 180 days on recommendations for parole of inmates who had served at least 25 years. Previously, he let them languish.
When it comes to issues involving crime, the former state prosecutor remains guided by his own rigid moral compass, even as he has evolved to support progressive social causes.
Where his advocacy for legalizing same-sex marriage positioned him at odds with the teachings of his Catholic Church as too liberal, his hard line on criminals has kept him to the right of its messages of forgiveness. Democrat or Republican, O’Malley can be counted among the most conservative of his contemporaries on crime.
But some wonder if his opposition to Hall is politically motivated.
“People are hearing that it’s about his presidential ambitions. I hope that’s not the case,” Larry Stafford Jr., head of the Prince George’s Young Democrats, said of the governor’s position on Hall.
As mayor of Baltimore, O’Malley’s hard-charging efforts to curb violent crime, including mass arrests, for which the city later settled a suit brought by civil rights groups, helped propel O’Malley to Maryland’s top elective office.
Since then, governing in years dominated by budget crisis and as crime rates have plummeted nationally, the issue has rarely come to a head for O’Malley, even as he has remained intensely interested in and continues to receive morning updates on homicides and other violent crimes committed overnight statewide.
O’Malley pushed the state to clear its backlog of untested DNA samples early in his first term and promoted tougher legislation for sex offenders after the killing of an Eastern Shore girl.
He also made a run at repealing the state death penalty and may do so again. On capital punishment, O’Malley is very much in line with the Catholic Church, the NAACP and, according to polling, a majority who oppose it in the state’s African American community.
But mostly, he has used his executive powers to quietly tighten how the state targets its most-violent offenders and to keep those already locked up behind bars.
Ahead of the deadline to begin complying with the new law this year on parole, O’Malley broke with a string of 57 straight rejections of requests for leniency and commuted the terms of two inmates serving life sentences for murder.
In one case, the accomplice had served 27 years, or three times as long as the man who pulled the trigger. In the other, a lone witness had recanted testimony that he could identify the alleged teenage shooter, who had gone on to spend nearly three decades in prison.
Many of those whom O’Malley has opted to leave in prison were in circumstances only marginally different than those of Hall.
In 1992, the now businessman and former Prince George’s County Council aide was an admitted crack dealer. He took part in a gun battle that killed a seventh-grade honors student as he and his family left a church service in Capitol Heights. Hall was initially charged with homicide, but the charge was withdrawn after tests showed the fatal bullet had come from the gun of another man.
After opposition from O’Malley, the fate of Hall’s nomination is in question, and it has ended up in a Prince George’s Circuit Court. A judge is expected to review the case Tuesday. Hall claims that under state law, O’Malley is required to finalize his nomination from the county’s Democratic Central Committee. Hall would replace Tiffany Alston, the delegate who was found guilty of stealing $800 from the General Assembly last spring to pay an employee of her private law firm. An Anne Arundel County judge sentenced her to probation. Alston has filed a suit claiming she is still entitled to the seat.
Through his spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory, O’Malley said he has no intention of appointing Hall to the General Assembly.
And he may feel little pressure to do so. Despite the young Democrats’ efforts to ramp up support for Hall, records show that more people have contacted O’Malley’s appointments office opposed to Hall’s nomination than in support.
“There are some things that are very hard to atone for, and the governor believes the murder of a 13-year-old innocent child is one of those,” Guillory said. “There is redemption, but redemption doesn’t guarantee you a right to hold a seat in Annapolis.”