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After nearly five decades in a Maryland prison, Kenneth Tucker has paid his debt; it’s time to set him free | COMMENTARY

"Prison Mirror" A prisoner in the old Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup uses a mirror to see what is happening in the cellblock. Photo by Paul W. Gillespie
"Prison Mirror" A prisoner in the old Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup uses a mirror to see what is happening in the cellblock. Photo by Paul W. Gillespie (Paul W. Gillespie)

My wife, Berenda, gave birth to our daughter Alexandra in November 1990. When Berenda was ready to go back to work a few months later, we were in a fix about day care. Berenda’s mother had a church friend who enjoyed caring for very young children. That friend, Eula “Louise” Tucker, stepped up. She cared for Alex on weekdays until my daughter was ready for preschool.

Ms. Tucker is a lifelong practitioner of Gospel values and a breast cancer survivor. She has one child, a son named Kenneth; one grandson, also named Kenneth; and one great-grandson, another Kenneth. She’s had a good life, clouded by one sad, constant duty: Since 1974 she has been able to see her son only in prison. He went first to Hagerstown, then to Jessup. Because of the pandemic, she has had only phone calls from him this year.

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Kenneth Tucker is 64. He has been serving a parole-eligible life sentence for his role in a thoughtless and vicious crime — the robbery and murder of a Baltimore City pastor with a special ministry to the hearing-impaired.

At 17, Kenneth made the mistake of his life. He accompanied another young man, who had a gun. Together, they held up the pastor; the other man shot and killed him. When the two were caught and brought to trial, Kenneth’s lawyer opted for his client to come before a judge without a jury. This was tantamount to a guilty plea. Nonetheless, Kenneth was sentenced to life. The other man took a jury trial, was sentenced to 50 years, served 20 and made parole.

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If Kenneth’s lawyer had taken a jury trial, which at worst would have resulted in the same life sentence, Kenneth would have made release by now.

In 1974, Maryland juries were routinely read an instruction that was later found unconstitutional by the Maryland Court of Appeals in 2012 in a case known as Unger versus Maryland. The ruling secured the release of 199 men (and one woman) who served long sentences, many of them for murder, according to the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. Unger has served as a kind of de facto parole. For one thing, it has proved very hard to retry the defendants so long after their crimes occurred. For another, and more important, thing, very few of the convicted people affected by Unger still represent any danger to society. According to the Office of the Maryland Public Defender, only eight men released under Unger have been returned to prison.

Kenneth Tucker has earned a GED diploma and a bachelor’s degree in psychology while serving his sentence. He has become a classic model inmate. Among several other certifications and services, he has worked as a monitor and companion for inmates with mental illness or terminal conditions. Kenneth has had eight parole hearings. There is nothing more that he can do to demonstrate his undeniable fitness to reenter society through parole.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has recently hired Becky Feldman, a former deputy public defender who was instrumental in freeing inmates under Unger, to run her office’s sentencing review unit. It has thus far secured the release of two older prisoners. Kenneth Tucker deserves to be the third.

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His role in a tragic crime called for a heavy debt to be paid to society. But that debt has been paid — and then some. His is the classic example of a sentence, justly imposed at the time, that can no longer be rationally defended. He has clearly demonstrated that he is no longer a threat to public safety. His continued incarceration is offensive to any reasoned sense of justice.

It’s time for all of those in government who have the power to do so to rectify this injustice and secure the release of Kenneth Tucker. The failure to do so is a clear message that the talk of “justice” does not measure up to the walk.

Hal Riedl (haroldriedl@gmail.com) is a retired Maryland civil servant. His email is haroldriedl@gmail.com.

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