Father Tobey, staunch friend of prisoners

Thirty-one years ago, the Rev. Myer Francis M. Tobey, S.J., decided it was time to ask a favor of a former student.

Father Tobey went to F. Clinton Bamberger, an attorney who had once studied sociology under him at Loyola College, and asked Mr. Bamberger and Elsbeth Bothe, who later would become a city Circuit Court judge, to represent a young man on Death Row.


John L. Brady, then 25, had been sentenced to die in the gas chamber for robbing and killing a disabled man, William Brooks, 53. Mr. Brady's accomplice, Charles Donald Boblit, had given the police five confessions. In four, he said Mr. Brady had killed the man. In the fifth, Mr. Boblit admitted he had strangled him. But the fifth confession had not been made available to Mr. Brady's defense attorney.

"Myer Tobey befriended him and believed his story," Mr. Bamberger recalled. The result, the attorney added, is "one of the most important cases in criminal jurisprudence" -- a 7-2 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 that Mr. Brady was entitled to a new sentencing.


In 1970, an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge sentenced Mr. Brady to life imprisonment and ordered that the sentencing date back to 1958.

Stories such as these make it difficult for friends of Father Tobey, who died Saturday at the age of 75, to understand why he sometimes doubted what he had accomplished during his 11 years as a chaplain in the Maryland Penitentiary and later at the City Jail.

"He used to tell me, 'I don't know how I spent that time in the penitentiary. I just feel it was so worthless, that I didn't accomplish anything,' " said Richard Lane, a former inmate who was befriended by the Jesuit priest when Mr. Lane was jailed on a narcotics charge in 1958.

"But he did. There are a lot of guys on the street today that he helped a lot. I told him, 'Whenever you think that way, look at me.' "

Mr. Lane now runs a rehabilitation program, Man Alive, for heroin addicts. Father Tobey was instrumental in helping Lane win a shorter sentence. He also was one of his few friends and supporters during the early part of his sentence, when Mr. Lane was frequently put in solitary.

An advocate of prison reform who was staunchly opposed to capital punishment, Father Tobey blessed the bodies of the last men to die in Maryland's gas chamber. He would be so anxious to give the blessing, Lane said, that the prison guards would have to hold him back gently, reminding Father Tobey the chamber was not safe to enter immediately after an execution.

He was chaplain of the penitentiary from 1956 to 1967 and witnessed four executions. The last legal execution in Maryland was June 9, 1961.

Born a Jew, Father Tobey converted to Catholicism in 1939 -- a decision that was initially painful for his family. "They in effect considered him dead," Mr. Bamberger said.


But the family eventually reconciled itself to Father Tobey's choice by the time he was ordained in 1953 at Woodstock College, the old Jesuit seminary in western Baltimore County.

Besides his work through the prisons, Father Tobey co-founded Dismas House, a halfway house on Mount Street, in the mid-1960s, and later another halfway house in East Baltimore. He also worked with the mentally ill, Mr. Bamberger said.

Father Tobey returned to Baltimore in 1988 after three years in Israel, where he studied in Jerusalem.

Troubled by breathing problems in recent years, he died at his Baltimore apartment as he was preparing to go to the hospital.

Survivors include several cousins.

A mass of Christian burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, where he was an associate pastor from the late 1970s until 1985. He will be buried in Woodstock Cemetery.