O'Malley increases pardons, but remains stingy overall

After little activity in first term, Gov. Martin O'Malley issued more than 140 pardons in past three years

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has rarely exercised his power to grant clemency to convicted criminals over his two terms, even as many gubernatorial counterparts have been more lenient amid a changing attitude toward these acts of mercy.

The Democratic governor has rejected nearly 1,300 cases that have come across his desk. Even after the General Assembly passed legislation intended to prod him to make a decision on requests for certain commutations, he has granted only 133 pardons over the past three years, according to a review of public records by The Baltimore Sun. In his first five years, he granted 13.

In contrast, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, granted clemency more than 1,000 times in four years, and his Republican successor has signaled his intent to continue the trend. California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has issued hundreds — often timing them to Christian holidays. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, also has issued hundreds and this month announced he would pardon his own son for a 2003 marijuana conviction.

Even O'Malley's successor, Republican Larry Hogan, said during the campaign that he would take a greater interest in clemency requests.

Looking to appear tough on crime and to avoid a repeat of what happened in the famous case of William R. "Willie" Horton — the convicted felon who committed armed robbery and rape while on furlough from prison — governors over the years scaled back efforts to pardon or commute sentences. But P.S. Ruckman, a professor at Rock Valley College who tracks pardons, said that position may be changing as views on criminal justice issues evolve.

"In recent elections, candidates running for governor have promised to make pardons a priority. That's a real change. You wouldn't have heard that in the 1980s," Ruckman said. "I think there's a sense that there are too many laws, things are overcriminalized."

Tammy Brown, O'Malley's director of the Office of Crime Control and Prevention, said O'Malley has concerns about wiping away decisions made by judges or juries. She also said the administration has tried to review a large number of cases and created a database to help manage the requests. Whether the governor will grant more pardons in his final weeks of office is uncertain, though his staff said cases continue to come in.

"I know he doesn't take the decision-making process lightly," Brown said. "His priority is always public safety."

O'Malley declined through a spokesman to be interviewed.

"Statistically, he certainly has the most denials, although he also had by far the most applicants," said David R. Blumberg, who has led the parole commission under O'Malley and his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who approved more pardon requests than he rejected.

"He has been very diligent. His staff has asked us an enormous number of questions."

O'Malley's pardons have been issued predominantly to offenders with a single conviction for a nonviolent crime, and in many instances their cases were decades old. The pardon allows people to expunge their records, opening up new job opportunities or allowing them to acquire firearms.

Among those granted a pardon by O'Malley is Robert German, a 72-year-old Northeast Baltimore resident convicted of auto larceny in 1958.

German, who was 16 at the time, said the conviction has followed him ever since and stopped him from applying for certain jobs. He decided to finally seek a pardon after his record prevented him from recently purchasing a gun.

"I paid my dues, man. I've been a square guy," said the retired postal service employee, who now works as a school bus driver. "That thing has been an albatross around my neck."

A review of records shows those pardoned by O'Malley include a successful chef, an attorney, a cybersecurity analyst, a lab researcher, a loan officer and a phlebotomist.

Tawanda Hughes was pardoned for a 2002 conviction for failure to exhibit proof of an MTA payment. Her punishment was just $60 in fines, yet it held her back in her career. A school police hall monitor, she wasn't able to be promoted to a full school police officer.

"It was hindering me," Hughes, 39, said in an interview. "I've been working with the school system for 10 years. I was trying to move forward, and it was holding me back."

In Massachusetts, the actor Mark Wahlberg is seeking a pardon for a crime committed when he was a teenager. That state's Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, has issued just four pardons in his time in office, according to reports. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also has rarely used the power.

On the federal level, President Barack Obama has issued the fewest number of pardons and commutations of any president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, granting just 62.

O'Malley, who as Baltimore's mayor forged a tough-on-crime image, has slowly taken increased action on clemency in his second term. Brown, his top aide on criminal justice issues, said the administration believed it was important to give applicants a response. They are often "grateful that the process went forward and a decision was made," she said.

Mark Matthews Sr., whose company, Clean Slate America, helps ex-offenders with jobs, said O'Malley should be more generous in granting pardons.

"When he was mayor, he implemented zero tolerance policies that gave tens of thousands of people a criminal record for minor offenses," Matthews said. "What about these people now locked out of the workforce?"

During his first five years, O'Malley issued only 13 pardons and did not take action on any cases involving inmates serving life sentences for murder.

His inaction prompted the General Assembly to pass a bill requiring the parole board's recommendations on certain inmates serving life sentences to take effect after 180 days if O'Malley did not reject them in writing.

"The concern that we had prior to the bill being passed was that he wasn't acting on anything," said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat. "We didn't know if it was because he didn't look at [the requests], or what."

While the legislature's 180-day bill applied only to inmates who had served 25 years or more, the O'Malley administration in practice applied it to other requests for clemency.

O'Malley also began taking up pardon requests at an increased clip. He issued 38 pardons in 2012, then 64 the next year. As of this week, O'Malley had granted 31 pardons in 2014. Blumberg said the total number rejected by O'Malley stands at 1,279. He also commuted the sentences of three inmates serving life sentences — all of which occurred in 2012.

It was unclear how many cases were recommended for a pardon by the parole commission that were rejected by O'Malley, or vice versa. Blumberg said overall, O'Malley has seen an increased number of applications, which he attributed to a post-9/11 increase in background checks by employers.

Anderson said he's glad that O'Malley has taken action on pardons but wishes he had granted more.

"Maybe he still will before he leaves office," Anderson said.

Pardons differ from expungements, which are only an option for those who were found not guilty, had their charges dismissed, or were given probation before judgment. Eliminating a criminal conviction requires action by the governor, and an ex-convict has to be crime-free from the date of sentencing and out of prison or off probation for at least five years. There is a longer waiting time for felons.

Ehrlich proudly boasted of his record related to pardons and commutations. He granted about 250, and Blumberg said he rejected 211. "I considered the pardon power an essential part of my job. I also saw it as a way to do justice," he wrote in The Baltimore Sun in 2011.

William Donald Schaefer drew much controversy for his choices in pardons. He commuted the double-life sentence of a convicted Eastern Shore murderer and the sentences of eight women he judged to be victims of "battered spouse syndrome," several of whom had killed husbands or boyfriends. He pardoned Kirk Bloodsworth, a death row inmate who was exonerated of a rape and murder.

He also commuted the sentence of a Prince George's County councilman convicted of appropriating $64,000 in campaign funds, and former Baltimore County State's Attorney Samuel A. Green Jr.

"Some day you may need something," Schaefer once said. "And you may find some governor has a little bit of a heart."

Harold M. Ridenour, 67, was convicted of shoplifting and a drug charge in 1976 and 1977. His reason for seeking a pardon nearly 40 years later? He wanted to buy a new shotgun for turkey hunting.

"I had a friend of mine, he's a firearms dealer. He said, 'Why don't you apply for a pardon?'" Ridenour said. "It was a whole lot of paperwork. I just kept waiting and waiting and waiting."

He said he was happy for the pardon from O'Malley.

"That's what our country's all about. That's what the pardon system is there for, to exonerate you for mistakes you've made. There's a lot of people who don't deserve a pardon — they keep on committing crimes. There's others like me, who made one mistake, and we've got to pay for it for the rest of the days."

Avery Winston, who was pardoned, said he couldn't get hired by the MTA or the corrections system because of a 1984 marijuana possession conviction.

"I'm not making an excuse for it, but I think they should let that go. I was only 21 years of age. I've never been in trouble. I'm married, got kids, kept a job. I think they should've taken that into consideration."

jfenton@baltsun.com

O'Malley pardons by year:

First term: 13

2007: 0

2008: 0

2009: 6

2010: 7

Second term: 133

2011: 0

2012: 38

2013: 64

2014: 31

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