Widow recalls life without husband as his killer goes free

As he lay on the floor of his Southwest Baltimore grocery store, Benjamin Rubin's last words to his wife were "I've been shot."

Moments earlier on that April day in 1972, Welford Monroe and another young man stormed into B&S Food Market, ordered Rubin to empty his pockets and stole $125 from the cash register. Schoolchildren were huddled in the back of the store when Monroe shot Rubin in the chest.

On his way out, Monroe turned and fired his gun at Shirley Rubin. She was leaning against a wire newspaper rack to steady herself when the bullet went through her arm and lodged in her hip.

Shirley Rubin, now 89, has been forced to confront those memories again with the recent, unexpected release of Monroe. Dozens like her could find themselves back in court for cases they thought were resolved as Maryland's legal system grapples with decades-old mistakes cited in a ruling by the state's top court.

"Welford Monroe is going to be free. Benjamin Rubin is lying in his grave and I am walking around with a bullet in my hip — I want to know: Who is being punished here?" Rubin said Friday at her home in Mount Washington. "I hope it haunts him because I can never, ever forgive him."

Monroe, who was 17 at the time of the murder, spent 41 years in prison. He was released last month as a result of a 2012 Court of Appeals decision that provides the possibility of new trials — and potential release — for as many as 200 people serving life sentences.

In an appeal brought by a man convicted of killing a Hagerstown police officer, the court ruled that before 1980 jurors were given improper instructions, allowing them to disregard the concept of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

At the June hearing at which Monroe was given his freedom, he stood at the defense table in a Baltimore courtroom. Clad in a blue-gray jumpsuit, he looked toward Rubin and asked for forgiveness.

"There's nothing I can do to take back what I've done. And I am so sorry," Monroe told the widow, his voice breaking before a long pause.

He turned to face her.

"I wish I could find the words to comfort you, but I can't," said Monroe, who had confessed to the incident, according to court records. "I hope someday you'll forgive me for what I've done. And I am truly sorry."

As part of the terms for release, Monroe agreed to plead guilty to the murder of Benjamin Rubin, assaulting with the intent to murder Shirley Rubin, and robbery with a deadly weapon; he was put on probation for five years. After two years, Monroe can ask to move to unsupervised probation, but if he violates the conditions of his release he could be returned to prison.

As they review cases affected by the Court of Appeals ruling, prosecutors around the state say they'll fight to keep violent criminals locked up. But in some cases — when evidence has been lost over the years, or if a prisoner has shown model behavior — the state will enter into agreements for the prisoners' release.

Monroe's prison records show one minor infraction in the last 35 years, according to court documents. He was cited in 1998 for having a piece of cardboard attached to the ceiling of his cell for hanging clothes.

While in prison, Monroe earned a GED certificate, completed courses from Anne Arundel Community College and has trained for nearly 7,500 hours as a machine operator. He's gained other skills as a cook and baker, plumber and carpenter.

He lived in a halfway house on a work-release program prior to 1993, when the state ordered inmates on life sentences back to prison.

Neither Monroe nor his lawyer could be reached for comment.

Rubin did not know about Monroe's work-release, and said through tears that she'd been by promised by the prosecutor who tried the case that he would never be free.

Sandra O'Connor, who was working in the city at the time but went on to become Baltimore County state's attorney, said Monroe and others deserved to be imprisoned for what they had done. Whether they should be released depends on their records since then, she said.

"My feeling is it really depends on what they had done while they're in prison, and I can't answer that for any of these guys," she added.

Reminded of her pledge that Monroe would spend his life behind bars, O'Connor said, "I guess I did say that to Mrs. Rubin, and I apologize that he got out."

Rubin said she's grateful for the work of Baltimore prosecutors who have handled the case since the Court of Appeals ruling.

But to her, the judges put the victims last. Rubin said her husband of 26 years grew up poor and worked for all he had. He was a veteran, a father of two, and a good and kind man known to neighborhood children as "Mr. Ben."

After his death, Rubin said, she lost the store. She had to find a new way to support herself and the couple's children, who were students at the University of Maryland when their father was murdered.

"My son and my daughter didn't go to their graduation ceremonies. They couldn't go without their father," Rubin said. "If we had a wedding, if we had a birthday, if we had grandchildren — no matter what we had in our lives from that point forward on, it was always that terrible feeling that my husband was missing."

The couple, who met on a streetcar on their way home from school, had owned the store for about 10 years when Benjamin Rubin was killed.

Shirley Rubin moved to a Mount Washington apartment complex, where she has lived for the past 36 years. She supported herself with a clerical job at State of Israel Bonds, retiring in 1989.

Her white sofa, underneath a display of colorful cross-stitch artwork, anchors an immaculate living room. She still uses the same coffee table on which detectives spread out the images of the suspects in the robbery and murder. She recalls that she picked out the correct pictures in less than a minute.

She's always been proud of her role in helping put her husband's killer away, and feels the same drive to speak out today against Monroe's release.

"As painful as this is for me to do this, I have to do this for Ben," she said. "He can't fight for himself. Releasing these prisoners is a disgrace to the word justice. And it is an insult to Benjamin Rubin's memory. It offers no justice for me or my family."

Lawyers advocating for inmates like Monroe say they, too, had had a long wait for justice.

"The travesty is not that some old man who has rehabilitated might be let out on supervised probation," said Brian M. Saccenti, head of the appellate division at the Office of the Public Defender. "The tragedy seems to be that these people were locked up after these trials where these fundamental rules to protect the innocent were not enforced."

Others point out that the people eligible for retrial under the ruling are among the last prisoners who were subject to other legal practices that have since been deemed unfair. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1980s that prosecutors could not disqualify prospective jurors based on their race.

Still, advocates are pushing to offer robust opposition to the prisoners' release.

Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, worries that prosecutors lack the staff to track down victims or their families in decades-old cases. The state allocates $17 million a year for programs involving crime victims.

Butler said prosecutors are finding it difficult to retry those cases: Witnesses may have moved or died, and evidence may have been lost. The same is true of victims or their families, he said, but he contended that the state owes it to the victims to let them or their families know the cases may be retried or the inmates freed.

"We're just concerned that substantial efforts need to go into locating victims, or survivors of the victims that are no longer alive," he said. "They may need some additional resources to make sure that justice includes justice for the survivors or the victims."

On the June afternoon that Monroe was granted his release, a Baltimore judge heard the cases of six other men who would also be freed. One by one, each man stood before the court. Each time, an officer unshackled their hands so they could sign the agreements that would set them free.

Karen Wilson faced her father's killer that day.

Craig Fellows fatally stabbed Wilson's father at his restaurant when she was 13. For years, visions of knives and blood invaded her mind. She couldn't sleep alone with the lights turned off until well into adulthood, she told the court last month. Her mother died in poverty, having lost the family's breadwinner.

But three years ago, Wilson said, God began the work of forgiveness in her heart.

Now, Wilson said in court, she was praying that Fellows will make use of his second chance. He declined to speak.

"I know that [God] sees a much bigger picture than I ever will," the woman from Central Maryland said. "And things that don't seem to make sense are part of a plan so much bigger than anything we can imagine. So today, I wish you well."

Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.







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