The state's highest court upheld yesterday the governor's ability to abolish parole for practically all prisoners serving life sentences.
"What the court said today is that it is appropriate for him to have personal guidelines," said Michael E. Morrill, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Morrill said the governor's personal guidelines are that if a person has committed a heinous crime, a life sentence should mean a life sentence. "That's where he starts from," he said.
Morrill said Glendening was pleased by the unanimous Court of Appeals ruling in the case that challenged the governor's 1995 statements detailing his guidelines. Glendening said people sentenced to life in prison -- murderers and rapists -- can expect to serve life terms, though he would make exceptions for inmates who are dying and old. He told parole officials not to recommend those serving life terms for release.
But, Morrill said, "as a matter of policy and law, he will give individual consideration to each individual case on its merits."
The court ruled in its 12-page opinion that Glendening was exercising his discretion on parole recommendations.
"The governor's statement on Sept. 21, 1995 that he would approve paroles for inmates serving life sentences only if the inmates were very old or terminally ill, was simply an announcement of guidelines as to how the governor would exercise the discretion which he has under the law," Judge John C. Eldridge wrote. "The governor's announcement did not bind him, and he can employ different guidelines whenever he desires to do so."
That is close to the arguments that lawyers for the governor made last year to the Court of Appeals.
But David C. Wright, executive director for Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland Inc., which brought the challenge, claimed victory for several reasons.
Among them, he said, was that the ruling stated Glendening's policy would have been invalid had it been a law. Wright argued that the policy was similar to a law and could not be applied retroactively. The opinion also affirmed that the Parole Commission, which holds hearings and makes a parole recommendation, and the governor, with whom parole approval for those serving life sentences rests, had to exercise their statutory duties and discretion -- a point the Baltimore Circuit Court had made and the attorney general's office did not challenge.
"With this decision in hand, we are now going to take a look at how the governor exercises that discretion," Wright said.
He had argued that the governor had turned life sentences into life without parole, a sentence the legislature created in 1987. "They changed the rules, and that is not fair," he said.
Yesterday's ruling may be mostly symbolic for inmates. While it applies to two-thirds of the 2,000 serving life sentences, only a handful -- those with near-perfect rehabilitation records -- have a chance of being paroled. Those serving life sentences may be eligible for a hearing in 11 years. Prison officials say most serving life sentences die in prison.
Wright was the lawyer for Walter E. Lomax, one of three inmates who challenged the policy. The Court of Appeals has not ruled on the other two cases.
The judges wrote that Lomax, sentenced in 1969 in Baltimore, had received parole consideration. He was recommended for release in 1989 and 1994 based on what his lawyers called an exemplary record. Release was denied by two different governors.