ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley has commuted the sentences of two prisoners serving life terms, the first time the governor has done so in his administration.
Mark Farley Grant, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1984 after being convicted of felony murder as a 15-year-old in Baltimore, and Tamara Settles, who was sentenced to life after being convicted in 1985 of felony murder in Prince George’s County, have both had their sentences commuted.
All but 45 years of Grant’s sentence, and all but 40 years of Settles’, were commuted. Both inmates are eligible for parole and should be released “in the near future,” said Elizabeth F. Harris, the governor’s chief legal counsel.
O’Malley said the commutations did not represent a policy shift. The governor has denied 57 requests to commute life sentences, and two others are being reviewed.
“I do believe that … for some crimes, taking another person’s life, that a life sentence is many, many times the appropriate sentence,” O’Malley said. “I came to the judgment that, in these two cases, that commutation was an appropriate judgment. And many others, I came to the contrary conclusion.”
O’Malley said he found every case brought before him — including those requests he denied — to be “very, very deeply tragic.”
Renee Hutchins, professor in a clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, which investigated and then presented Grant’s case to O’Malley, said her client was almost “speechless” when he was told the news.
“I think he has always been reluctant to be too hopeful,” Hutchins said. “He said ‘I’m sorry, say that again?’ … He was very grateful to the governor.”
Hutchins, who has worked on the case with other professors and law school students for the last “six or seven years,” said she “could not be happier.”
Grant’s was “an incredible case of actual innocence,” Hutchins said, so she was hopeful the governor would ultimately decide to commute his sentence.
And after 29 years of Grant being “an ideal inmate,” Hutchins said she had “reason to believe that Mark will be home very soon.”
Grant was 14 years old when 16-year-old Michael Gough was shot in a robbery attempt in West Baltimore. A witness — Mardell Brawner — pegged Grant, who was with a group of friends just before the crime, as the shooter.
But a city jury was not convinced and failed to convict him of first-degree murder. Grant was found guilty of felony murder, however, and has been in prison since. He is now 43 years old.
Settles has been serving a life sentence since 1985, even though she did not fire the bullet that killed Charles Fowler in the course of a robbery in Prince George’s County.
Then 26 years old, Settles set up the robbery by driving Fowler from a Washington, D.C., bar to a parking lot in Hyattsville, where her boyfriend waited with a gun. The boyfriend shot Fowler twice, killing him, but served only nine years in prison after his lawyer was able to modify his sentence.
Now 53 years old, Settles admits to setting up and participating in the robbery. While in prison, she completed an associate’s degree through Baltimore City Community College and is close to earning a bachelor’s degree from Morgan State University, Harris, the governor’s legal counsel, said.
O’Malley’s move puts the ball in the court of the Maryland Parole Commission. Prisoners accrue credits for time served and good behavior throughout their incarceration, said David Blumberg, chairman of the commission. Those credits are counted in comparison to the prisoner’s mandatory release date to determine a potential early release.
In the case of prisoners serving life sentences with no mandatory release date, credits have no fixed time to count against, Blumberg said. But by commuting Grant’s and Settles’ sentences to a fixed term, those credits can be applied to determine a mandatory release date.
Blumberg said prisoners would attend a hearing before the parole commission within 60 days of the governor’s decision to commute their sentences, where a release date will be determined.
“It’s a long process with a lot of double checks and triple checks,” Blumberg said. “We’re talking not only about redemption, but public safety.”
Hutchins, the law school professor who represents Grant, said her client would need time to transition back into society after nearly three decades in prison. Grant’s mother and an older brother died while he was incarcerated, but Hutchins said her client still had a “big, supportive family” waiting for him to come home.
“The whole family has been waiting for this day for so long,” she said. “It’s a good day.”