A freed man, Chris Conover lived under shadow of doubts

A former lifer takes his own life after post-prison struggles

If Chris Conover's attorneys ask Maryland's Republican governor to approve a pardon that his Democratic predecessor rejected, they will have a new, irrefutable argument to make: Conover is no threat to society, if he ever was. He took his own life last week.

Conover was 60 years old.

He died a free man, but under the shadow of doubts. He was never exonerated, never pardoned, never compensated for the 18 years he spent in a Maryland prison before an advance in science led to his release from a life sentence.

Conover was convicted of taking part in a drug-related double murder in Randallstown in October 1984. DNA testing of key prosecution evidence — two strands of human hair found at the scene of the crime — prompted a judge to vacate that conviction in 2003 and send Conover home to Baltimore County, where he had grown up.

Conover found a job and married his high school sweetheart. He moved to North Carolina and established a pet-sitting, dog-walking business.

Still, he apparently never found real peace.

Despite the DNA tests that blew away the state's tenuous case against Conover, and despite numerous alibi witnesses who said they had seen Conover at a birthday party during the time of the murders, prosecutors insisted that he was guilty. They vowed to retry him. They had an eyewitness, a survivor of the shooting, who had picked Conover out of a photo array and, later, a lineup.

Faced with the prospect of another year in prison awaiting a new trial in a county with a high conviction rate, Conover agreed in 2003 to an Alford plea to an armed robbery charge stemming from the Randallstown killings.

In an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit to the crime but acknowledges that the prosecution could likely get a conviction.

That arrangement seems to defy logic, but Conover was eager to get out of prison. He told relatives and his attorneys that he suffered panic attacks and that they had worsened since the DNA tests raised the possibility of his release.

"It would not have been worth it to put my mother and my loved ones through another trial," Conover told a Baltimore Sun reporter outside the county courts building in Towson, his mother and sister at side.

That June 2003 bargain was not ideal, say Lee Rubin and Kevin Ranlett, attorneys with the law firm Mayer Brown. But it spared Conover a new trial and secured his freedom.

Rubin and Ranlett worked the Conover case pro bono for the New York-based Innocence Project and its then-director, Nina Morrison.

The attorneys said they were shocked and saddened to learn of Conover's suicide Feb. 16. They had been in touch with him and had planned to apply to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan for a pardon.

Rubin and Ranlett say their first effort was an application to then-Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2009. The lawyers thought they had a good case.

The DNA test had undermined the trial testimony of an FBI scientist who claimed the hairs found at the crime scene came from Conover. Plus, in a separate trial, the state's star witness against Conover had failed to persuade a Baltimore County jury to convict his alleged accomplice in the slayings. Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun who has campaigned for years against the death penalty, supported Conover's request for a pardon.

But, Ranlett and Rubin say, the O'Malley administration rejected the pardon application in 2012.

A pardon likely would have made Conover eligible for some financial compensation from the state for his 18 years in prison.

But he never got a cent.

His wife, Sue Conover, said Chris was upset about that, but not bitter.

For several years, they managed to make a living together, but the recession hurt their pet business on the Outer Banks.

Chris Conover had physical ailments, too, she said, and he suffered from depression, anxiety and more panic attacks. His condition deteriorated during the last two years.

"He knew that, to get help, he needed to commit himself" to in-patient treatment, she said. "But he didn't want to be locked up again. He would do anything for anybody, he just couldn't do for himself. ... He couldn't fight his demons any longer. He felt like he was disappointing everybody, and he couldn't live like that."

Rubin said, "What I see in my memory was an ebullient, positive person who had an unbelievable perspective on life for someone who'd had so much of his life stolen from him."

Conover's funeral was held over the weekend in Towson.

Kirk Bloodsworth, the first Death Row inmate to be exonerated by DNA evidence, attended the service. He knew Conover from their years together in a Maryland prison. Bloodsworth said Wednesday he would like to see a posthumous pardon for his old friend.

Perhaps, with a new governor, he will.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
28°