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Governor denies 7 commutation requests; Senate moves to limit role

Taking action for the first time on the growing pile of parole commission recommendations on his desk, Gov. Martin O'Malley has declined to commute the sentences of seven inmates serving life in prison, his office announced Thursday.

The decisions came as lawmakers weigh changes to the governor's role in the parole process.

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Under current law, a convict serving a life sentence may not be freed without the approval of the governor. There is no requirement that the governor act on a recommendation by the state parole commission.

On Thursday, a Senate committee voted to give the governor 180 days to object to a commission's recommendation to release a convict before the inmate is freed automatically. The House has passed legislation that would set a 90-day deadline.

O'Malley's fellow Democrats have criticized his inaction on 50 parole and commutation recommendations, some of which were waiting when he took office in January 2007.

On Thursday, his office announced that he had rejected commission recommendations to commute the life sentences of five Baltimore City men convicted of murder, one Baltimore man convicted of first-degree rape and one Prince George's County man convicted of murder. They range in age from 55 to 73; all have been behind bars since the 1970s.

A spokesman for O'Malley said the governor was unavailable to comment Thursday. Spokesman Shaun Adamec said O'Malley decided to deny the parole commission's recommendations after reviewing the cases. He said the other 43 cases remain under review.

The timing of the announcement was noted by several senators at Thursday's hearing.

Sen. James Brochin, who opposed the legislation, said O'Malley's action Thursday should serve as proof that his role in the process is fine as it is.

"He's adhering to his executive responsibility," the Baltimore County Democrat said.

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Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs said the "one good thing" the legislation has done is force the governor to act.

The Harford County Republican also voted against the bill, but the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on which she and Brochin sit advanced the proposal to the Senate floor for debate.

Some Republicans have argued the legislation gives the governor a way out of making the often politically difficult decision of whether to release a convict.

"We're about to make an institutional change to our statute because of a political and circumstantial problem," said Sen. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican who also sits on the committee.

Some lawmakers had been pushing to take the governor out of the parole process altogether. Maryland is one of three states — the others are Oklahoma and California — that require a governor to approve the release of anyone sentenced to a life term.

The legislative proposals under consideration are silent as to how quickly the governor should act on commutation requests such as the ones to which O'Malley responded this week.

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In those cases, the parole commission asks the governor to change a life sentence to a term of years so that the inmate becomes eligible for release once he or she accumulates enough good-time credits.

David R. Blumberg, chairman of the governor-appointed Maryland Parole Commission, said his panel follows strict guidelines when deciding whether to recommend a lifer for parole or commutation.

The commission assesses the inmate's level of remorse, responsibility, behavior behind bars and plan for reentry, he said. If two commissioners assigned to a case agree, the inmate is sent to Patuxent Institution in Jessup for a psychological evaluation. After that, the case is presented to the 10 commission members, a majority of whom must agree to a recommendation for parole or commutation. Only then is a case is sent to the governor's desk.

O'Malley's decision in seven cases leaves 36 unanswered commutation requests and seven parole recommendations.

Commutations denied

• Yusuf Rasheed, 70, was convicted in a 1975 Baltimore domestic first-degree murder case. Rasheed, also known as Joseph Westry, shot his estranged wife and her lover, who died.

• In another domestic first-degree murder, Calvin Ash, was convicted in 1972 of shooting to death his estranged wife's boyfriend. Ash is now 60.

• Charles Chappell, 55, is serving a life sentence for the robbery and first-degree murder of a drug dealer who was shot to death. Case notes show he would not tell police about any accomplices and has been in prison since 1977, when he was 21 years old.

• Clarence Cowan fatally stabbed a 70-year-old woman while ransacking her house in Baltimore and was convicted of first-degree murder. Behind bars since 1978, Cowan is now 61.

• Lee Moore, 73, was convicted of a first-degree rape in Baltimore in 1978. Moore pulled a woman from a bus stop into an alley and assaulted her, also injuring her face.

• In 1981, Gov. Harry R. Hughes paroled David Brown from his life sentence for murder. The parole commission doesn't have the police report, but Brown, now 68, has told commissioners he was one of two men involved in the 1965 robbery and shooting death of a man. In 1989, Brown was returned to prison after being convicted of being in possession of stolen U.S. treasury bonds. The crime triggered a parole violation, which renewed his life sentence.

• Edward Levicy has been behind bars since 1978 for a first-degree murder and kidnapping conspiracy case out of Prince George's County. Levicy, now age 60 and also known as Salim Shabazz, shot to death someone from a rival drug-dealing gang.

Information provided by Maryland Parole Commission Chairman David R. Blumberg

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