Governor Finally Commutes Two Life Sentences

by Professor Byron L. Warnken on April 11, 2012

If you read my blog, you know I think that Life should not mean Life Without Parole in Maryland.

On March 29, 2012, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed an executive order commuting the life sentences of Mark Grant and Tamara Settles.  This is the first time that the Governor has exercised his power to grant clemency.  Both inmates were serving sentences of life without parole for murder.  The Governor has rejected 57 applications, and there are two pending.

Grant was convicted of felony murder 27 years ago when he was 15 years old.  He was found guilty of shooting another teenager and stealing his coat in a street robbery in Baltimore City.  From 2004 to 2008, University of Maryland law students and professors researched Grant’s 1983 conviction.  Their report concluded that there was “no question” that Grant was innocent.  A key witness for the State recanted, stating that he testified under threat of death from the actual killer’s family, and the prosecutor requested that the Governor commute the sentence, and the Maryland Parole Commission determined that Grant posed no threat to public safety.

Maryland is one of only three states in which the Governor has the power to reject the Parole Commission’s recommendation.  Prior to 2010, if the Maryland Parole Commission recommended parole for a “lifer,” that recommendation was “rejected” by gubernatorial inaction, meaning that if the Governor did nothing with the recommendation, the lifer was not paroled.  Beginning in 2010, the Maryland General Assembly required the Governor to affirmatively deny the parole recommendation.  The 2010 change in the law provided that, if the Governor does nothing with a parole recommendation for six months, the lifer is paroled.

Over the years, Maryland governors have paroled fewer and fewer “lifers.”  Governor Marvin Mandel paroled 92 lifers between 1969 and 1977.  However, since 1995, parole for lifers has essentially been eliminated.  Governor Parris Glendening took the position that “life means life.”  In eight years as Governor, he paroled six lifers, all of whom he paroled for medical reasons.  Governor Robert Ehrlich paroled six lifers.

The Governor did not parole or pardon either Grant or Settles.  Parole means that the individual is released, but remains under parole supervision until the full sentence is completed.  Pardon means that the conviction is vacated and crime is forgiven.  In the cases of Grant and Settles, the Governor commuted the sentences, meaning that he reduced the sentences.  Grant’s sentence was commuted to life, with all but 45 years suspended.  Grant, having served 29 years, will probably be released in about six years.  Settles’ sentence was commuted to life, with all but 40 years suspended.  Settles, having served 27 years, will probably be released in about four years.  When asked why he commuted these sentences, Governor O’Malley stated it was because of the six month deadline imposed by the General Assembly for him to make a decision.

In recent years, some governors have been criticized after granting clemency.  For example, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee released an individual who later killed four police officers.  Recently, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour released nearly 200 individuals on his last day in office.

Congratulations and thanks to Governor O’Malley for doing the right thing.  However, it should happen more often than two inmates every six years.

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