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Putting a price tag on that which is priceless -- life itself


CONVICTED cop killer Samuel Veney, who was returned to a Maryland prison Monday, walked away the same weekend two Los Angeles police officers were found guilty of violating Rodney King's civil rights. That was a coincidence, but both Sam Veney and Rodney King were involved in cases where police misconduct became at least as notorious as the misdeeds of either man.

Before his brutal beating, King had led police and highway patrolmen on a high-speed car chase. He was quite drunk at the time. My guess is that he had broken at least four laws by the time of his arrest, crimes that were all but forgotten in the furor that resulted from the video of those 82 seconds it took police to subdue him.

The case of Sam Veney and his brother Earl is different because their crime was more heinous. They gunned down two Baltimore cops -- killing one and wounding another -- while robbing a liquor store on Greenmount Avenue. The Veney brothers were probably the most notorious and feared criminals in Baltimore history, but police misconduct figured prominently in their crime, too.

After the shootings, the Baltimore Police Department declared war on the city's black population. Police broke into scores of homes without warrants or the slightest pretext of probable cause. The search teams were called "flying squads," as delicate a euphemism for police state terror as it should ever be our disgust to encounter. Juanita Jackson Mitchell had to take city police to federal court and remind them that Baltimore was in America, not Nazi Germany or the Stalinist Soviet Union.

As a young boy living in the Murphy Homes housing project at the time, I vividly remember wondering whether I had more to fear from the Veney brothers or Baltimore cops. Years later remember thinking that whatever the iniquities of the Veney brothers, it was their act that had exposed the Baltimore Police Department for its brutal, racist treatment of Baltimore's black citizens in 1964 and before. Should we forget how bad it was, we need only remind ourselves that Commissioner Donald Pomerleau -- hardly a flaming liberal -- was brought in to nudge the department into the 20th century.

Now Sam Veney comes back to haunt us again. It seems that every time a Veney screws up, a larger issue is brought into focus. The issue this time is the parole policy of the state of Maryland. Many were wondering -- Evening Sun columnist Dan Rodricks among them -- why a lifer like Veney who was not being considered for parole was given weekend home visiting privileges.

I'm sure Sam Veney looked at the situation differently, as did his family. He figured that with a good behavior record and a 10-year history of returning from weekend visits, why shouldn't he be considered for parole? So old Sam simply initiated self-parole.

And to give the devil his due, Sam Veney has a point. Yes, he killed a cop. Yes, he was given a life term. But everyone in the state knows that some murderers are given life terms and then are paroled. Others, like Sam Veney, are given life sentences and won't ever be considered for parole. The criteria for determining which murderers get paroled and which do not sound good -- prior criminal record, the impact on the victim's family, the convict's progress while in prison -- but ultimately lead to charges that the race, class and occupation of the victim come into the equation.

How is it that Sam Veney can see the absurdity of such a policy and we civilized, law-abiding citizens can't? All murder victims are equally dead. There are none deader than others. If some lifers have a shot at parole, all should have a shot. Or none should have a shot.

Equally absurd is the case of Terrence Johnson, sentenced to 25 years for killing two Prince George's County police officers. Johnson has been a model prisoner for years, even taking the time to further his education while in prison. But don't look for him to be paroled.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer found the heart to pardon women convicted of killing husbands and boyfriends on the grounds that the women had suffered brutality at the hands of the men. Even though the prosecution in Johnson's case conceded the cops were brutalizing him at the time of the killings, the governor apparently can't see any justification for granting Johnson not a pardon, but a parole.

We ought to be concerned that Maryland law allows for the parole of murderers given life sentences. As former city police commissioner, state public safety commissioner and current Mercy Hospital brain surgery patient Bishop L. Robinson has pointed out, if we don't want murderers paroled after they've been handed life sentences, we need only express our wishes to our state legislators and get them to work changing the law.

Let's put a no-parole-for-lifers law on the books. Paroling some murderers and denying parole to others puts a price tag on that which should be priceless -- human life.

Gregory P. Kane is a Baltimore writer.

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