For first time, O'Malley moves toward clemency for two lifers

Gov.Martin O'Malleyis taking steps to grant clemency to two Maryland inmates serving life sentences, including a Baltimore man convicted of murder at age 14 — the first time he has proceeded that far on such an action.

Aides said public notices will be posted Wednesday that the two cases are under consideration. Officials say the notices are intended to solicit public feedback, and decisions could be made by the end of the month.

During his tenure as governor, O'Malley has denied early release for 57 inmates recommended for release by the state's parole commission.

"[These are] the first two that we are publishing notice for, so it's obviously significant," said Elizabeth Harris, O'Malley's chief legal counsel.

The inmates under consideration are Mark Farley Grant and Tamara Settles, aWashington, D.C., woman convicted for her role in a killing inPrince George's County. Both were convicted of felony murder.

Grant's case has received considerable attention. The Innocence Project took up his cause, and the former prosecutor in his case — who is also a former chair of the state parole commission — and one of the victim's relatives have advocated for Grant's release.

Grant, charged with participating in a botched street robbery in West Baltimore that killed Michael Gough, was sentenced to life in prison in 1984. Advocates for Grant say evidence shows a co-defendant was the triggerman, and the parole commission recommended in February 2011 that he be released, according to reports at the time.

The original prosecutor on the case, Phillip Dantes is now an attorney in private practice in Towson and wrote a letter to the governor last year urging Grant's release. He said he would have approached the case differently, based on new evidence about Grant's involvement.

"Whether he was involved in the homicide or not, there's enough doubt combined with the jail time he's done for the governor to" commute Grant's sentence, Dantes said Tuesday.

Settles, now 53, was convicted in 1985 after meeting Charles Fowler at a bar and luring him to Hyattsville, where her boyfriend planned to rob him. Fowler was killed during the robbery. Unlike Grant, Settles does not claim to be innocent. But her sentence was significantly longer than that of the boyfriend, who served only nine years, and aides said she has made "significant progress" while incarcerated.

Maryland is one of only three states that grant the governor the power to reject recommendations from parole commissions. In every other state, the complete authority rests with the commission.

The majority of the cases referred by the commission involve commuting a life sentence to a term of years, which enables the convict to gain release through good-time credits or parole.

Until last year, O'Malley had not taken action on 50 cases that had made it to his desk, prompting some frustrated legislators to pursue bills that would have limited his role in some cases.

O'Malley aides have chafed at the suggestion that the governor was purposely avoiding the issue, and said the decision to pursue the cases of Grant and Settles does not reflect a policy shift. In considering each commutation, officials said, they carry out a painstaking review process that involves gathering court transcripts, contacting victims' relatives and attorneys involved in the case, and evaluating housing and job plans to help the offender transition back into society.

"I can't underscore how seriously [O'Malley] takes this particular responsibility, especially given his role in Baltimore in leading that city's turnaround and now being faced with some of the very crimes he worked so hard to prevent as mayor," said Kristen Mahoney, director of the Governor's Office of Crime, Control and Prevention. "I think it's uniquely personal to him."

David Blumberg, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission since 2004, said he did not fault O'Malley for the way he has handled the commission's recommendations.

"The governor's legal team has done a lot of due diligence in looking into these cases," he said. "I'm glad to see the process is obviously working."

Successive Maryland governors have paroled fewer and fewer lifers amid a growing number of requests. Gov. Marvin Mandel released 92 convicts serving life sentences during his term; Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has since lamented his "life means life" stance, freed six lifers, all of them because of medical reasons.

Gov.Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., O'Malley's Republican predecessor, released six inmates.

If O'Malley chooses to commute the sentences of Grant and Settles, they would not likely be released immediately. The cases would be sent back to the parole commission, which would have final say over how to manage their release.

Grant was recommended for release last February, and there have been public hints of movement in the case recently. In January, the governor's staff asked Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein's office for its opinion about Grant's release; the office said it did not object.

Mahoney said Grant's age played a role in the evaluation. "There's an emerging policy nationally directing a move away from life sentences for juveniles," she said.

Settles has been incarcerated since 1985, while her boyfriend and co-defendant, who court records identify as Herman Ray Rockingham, has been out of prison for 19 years, O'Malley aides said. Prince George's County prosecutors say they do not oppose her release.

The legislature passed a bill last year that would allow lifers approved for release by the parole commission to be granted parole if the governor does not act within 180 days. Though the bill does not affect commutations, O'Malley aides said they are following the "spirit" of that bill in their handling of Grant's and Settles' cases.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad