Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. commuted the life sentences yesterday of two prisoners - both convicted of brutal slayings as teenagers more than three decades ago.
The commutations were among seven clemency decisions issued yesterday by Ehrlich, who as governor has the power to pardon convicts or to reduce their sentences. It marks the second time in two years that Ehrlich has broken from the "life means life" policy used by his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening.
One of the prisoners, Walter Henry Arvinger, 55, could be released within days. He was convicted of first-degree murder for his role in a 1968 robbery-turned-fatal beating in Baltimore. Arvinger, then 19, did not wield the murder weapon, a baseball bat, yet he has served more time than the accomplice who beat James Richard Brown to death.
"His is a powerful story about why Glendening's policy was wrong and why what Governor Ehrlich is doing is right," said Arvinger's current lawyer, University of Maryland law professor Michael Millemann. Only a governor can authorize the release of a person sentenced to life, and from 1995 until Ehrlich's inauguration, those recommendations by the Maryland Parole Commission went unread.
Ehrlich commuted Arvinger's sentence to life, suspending all but 45 years with conditions. Once released, Arvinger will report to a parole and probation agent until 2013.
Another prisoner, Mary Washington Brown, 46, will participate in a work-release program for the next year and could be released if she completes it successfully.
Brown was 15 years old when she fatally stabbed an elderly woman during a botched robbery at Baltimore's old Greyhound bus station in 1974. The victim, Charlotte Ida Lessem, 68, of Fayetteville, N.C., was on her way to a bridge tournament in Bermuda when Brown and another girl tried to steal her purse.
After a troubled childhood that included abuse by her stepfather and witnessing him kill her mother, Brown focused on academics while in prison, achieving a general equivalency degree and an associate of arts degree from the former Community College of Baltimore.
Brown's sentence was commuted from life to 60 years, with the work-release stipulation.
Ehrlich also commuted yesterday the sentence of a burglar who had been sentenced to 25 years without parole. Clifford Wayne Sewell, 40, will now serve a term of 20 years, with the possibility of parole. And he pardoned four men convicted of crimes including assault and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
"These cases are a reflection of my view that Maryland's criminal justice system must be tough but fair," Ehrlich said in a statement.
The clemency decisions come about a year after Ehrlich's first commutation of a life sentence. Last November, the governor reduced the sentence of Karen Lynn Fried from life to 45 years. She was convicted for her role in the fatal stabbing of a 13-year-old in Baltimore County in 1978.
The family of her victim, Toni L. Jordan, said they were stunned when they learned that Ehrlich had planned to commute Fried's sentence.
When Arvinger is released from a prison in Cumberland - perhaps as early as Monday, his lawyer said - he will come home to an entirely different world from the one he left behind in 1968, his brother, Stephen Arvinger, said.
His son, who was an infant when he went to prison, now has children of his own. His mother is 78; his grandmother, 105.
Arvinger will live with his brother's family and his mother at their home in Ashburton. And he might even get a former job back, Millemann said.
For several years in the early 1990s, Arvinger was employed by a Baltimore construction company under a prison work-release program. But when a 40-year-old convicted murderer out on work release killed his former girlfriend and himself in 1993, the Division of Corrections shut down the program.
Two years later, Glendening announced his new "life means life" policy, under which he refused parole for all lifers except for the elderly and dying.
Millemann, who took Arvinger's case after receiving a letter from him about 18 months ago, said Ehrlich deserves credit for "taking the political risk of reviewing clemency requests."
Each month, the governor's legal office reviews about 20 clemency petitions. The parole commission twice recommended clemency for Brown and Arvinger.