It is hard to imagine that any governor of Maryland would approve Lenny Cirincione for parole from prison. A jury convicted him of murdering a Baltimore police officer in 1986, and no governor — Republican or Democrat — wants to be the one who declares 35 years of incarceration sufficient punishment for that. Not even an outgoing governor planning to retire to Ocean Pines would dare grant Cirincione freedom.
Which is one reason why the Maryland General Assembly has taken the governor out of the fraught decision-making process when it comes to parole for inmates serving a life sentence, such as Cirincione. That should be a relief for the governor and future governors.
A few days ago in Annapolis, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of legislation to strip the governor of the power to reject the recommendations of the 10-member Maryland Parole Commission with regard to lifers. Hogan shouldn’t take it personally. The change in the law is not about him; it’s about all governors. In fact, it was the intransigence of Hogan’s Democratic predecessors that prompted the General Assembly to act. At least three, two-term Democrats generally refused to approve any lifers for parole.
And what, you ask, was wrong with that?
Two things: Politics has no place in criminal justice, and allowing the governor to nix parole recommendations amounted to bait-and-switch by the state.
Here’s what happened dozens of times over the last 30-plus years: Judges sentenced defendants to life with the possibility of parole. These offenders served decades in prison before they were eligible for a parole hearing. Lifers who lived by the rules and who were no longer deemed a threat to public safety by parole commissioners earned a recommendation for conditional release. The recommendations went to the governor’s office and, for the most part, died there.
Maryland was one of only three states that gave governors the power to veto parole recommendations. That power led to lifers serving indefinite terms, far longer than sentencing judges intended and parole commissioners deemed necessary.
Maryland governors are politicians; like all others, they have to run for office and for reelection. Some have aspirations for higher office. (Martin O’Malley ran for president; another, Hogan, is thinking about it.) The last thing they want is to be tagged with an inmate who, despite the due diligence of the parole commission, might commit another heinous crime.
They also do not want to be seen as being nice to cop killers.
The Lenny Cirincione case goes back to the summer of 1986, when the Orioles still played home games at Memorial Stadium. On Thursday, June 12, that year, the Yankees were in town for a four-game series. As fans approached the stadium, Officer Richard Miller directed traffic, just as he had countless times before. He was 55 and had been a police officer for 32 years, half of them in the traffic division. He was familiar to loads of Orioles fans.
It was around 6 p.m. when a car came the wrong way on 33rd Street, reached an estimated speed of 50 mph and struck Miller, causing catastrophic injury. Doctors and nurses at Shock Trauma tried to save the veteran officer. Miller clung to life for nearly six weeks. The day he died, police and prosecutors said they would charge the 29-year-old driver of the vehicle, Leonard “Lenny” Cirincione, with first-degree murder.
When Cirincione went on trial, he claimed he had been high on phencyclidine, or PCP, the dangerous and hallucinogenic drug, and did not intend to kill Miller. But the prosecution argued that Cirincione had exaggerated his condition and should have had the presence of mind to avoid the officer. The jury agreed and convicted him. A judge sentenced him to life for killing Miller plus 20 years for almost striking another officer.
Cirincione has been in prison for 34 years. He has advocates who think he’s been punished enough. In fact, they believe Cirincione never should have been charged with murder, but with vehicular manslaughter — and given a much lighter sentence.
But the victim was a police officer, a fact that carries significant weight with the public and makes Cirincione an outlier among Maryland inmates serving life sentences.
He has been eligible for parole twice. The first time, in 2016, the commission told him to try again in five years. This year, according to his advocates, the commission told him he could have a hearing in three more years. That would be 2024.
His advocates have gone to court for relief but so far failed. Miller’s children have told the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office they oppose any kind of modification to Cirincione’s sentence that might result in his release. They would, I assume, oppose his parole, too.
When the commission considers that again, it will face a test of its ability to be objective and to rule without fear or favor. Can it treat a man who killed a police officer the same way it treats all others who come, after more than 35 years, seeking freedom?
His advocates argue that Cirincione is a model prisoner and a good candidate for parole. Maybe so. But no one should assume the parole commissioners will support that view.
One thing is certain, however — a politician will no longer loom over this criminal justice process with the power to further deny freedom for any inmate, even a cop killer, who might earn it.