WASHINGTON — Former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich has teamed up with the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law to open a clinic this semester on clemency matters for people with criminal convictions, and the initiative will include a workshop for newly elected governors and their staff.
The CUA Law/Ehrlich Partnership on Clemency will be part of the law school’s Innocence Project Clinic. Students will receive clinical experience by preparing pardon applications.
“There’s a lot of justice that can get accomplished pretty efficiently to great benefit if you take this process seriously,” Ehrlich said in a recent interview after meeting with law school officials at the university’s campus in Washington.
Other law schools have established similar programs in recent years. The University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis created one about two years ago, and the University of Akron also has a program. However, Ehrlich and Catholic University law school officials say the workshop for interested governors and their staff will be a unique component. The clinic also will take up advocacy for reforms.
“Other law schools have a clinic, but no other law school that I’m aware of is conducting any kind of effort to do a workshop along the lines of what the governor described for new governors and chiefs of staff,” said Daniel Attridge, the law school’s dean.
Ehrlich, who became Maryland’s first Republican governor in 36 years when he was elected in 2002, made clemency requests a priority of his administration from 2003 to 2007. Ehrlich assigned five lawyers in his office to consider clemency cases, with two of them fully devoted to them. He met with them once a month to consider cases.
Ehrlich said it’s a power that became particularly unpopular after the “Willie Horton” TV commercial helped sink the 1988 presidential campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Horton, a convicted killer serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, was released from prison under a weekend furlough program backed by Dukakis, then raped a Maryland woman and assaulted her fiancé after he failed to return to prison.
“It’s the Willie Hortonization,” Ehrlich said. “Willie Horton still lives 25 years later. It’s fear.”
Ehrlich, who underscores that consideration of clemency cases is part of a chief executive’s job description, said he reviewed a wide variety of cases as governor, from old drug convictions to one concerning a person involved in a 20-year-old bar fight who was seeking a security clearance to get a job.
“There’s a million different scenarios you can come up with, and it’s not about being easy on crime,” Ehrlich said. “It’s in many cases, fairness.”
Ehrlich noted the pardon he granted to Michael Austin, who had served 27 years in prison before his conviction for the slaying of a convenience store security guard was overturned. The reversal came in 2001 when a judge found grave errors by virtually everyone involved in the trial. The full and complete pardon enabled the Baltimore man to seek compensation from the state, which later awarded him a $1.4 million settlement.
In a four-year term, Ehrlich granted 227 pardons and 21 commutations. That’s far more than his predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening. In eight years, he granted 134 pardons and six medical paroles, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who defeated Ehrlich in 2006 and 2010, has granted 105 pardons, three commutations and two medical paroles in more than six and a half years in office, according to the department.
Cara Drinan, a law professor at the university who will help run the clinic, said the program is as much about educating as it is about doing clinical work.
“In addition to it being part of the job description, I think it’s important for the public to understand that it’s not just about releasing inmates from prison — that clemency can mean both commutations of sentences, reduction in length of sentences and pardons once people have served their complete sentences,” Drinan said.
Margaret Love, who served as the U.S. pardon attorney between 1990 and 1997, said it’s important for chief executives to give more consideration to granting clemency, because criminal convictions have such sweeping effects on people’s lives, particularly in finding employment.
“It’s a huge problem, because in many jurisdictions a pardon is the only way for anyone convicted of a felony or even a misdemeanor to avoid these massive collateral consequences of conviction,” said Love, who now focuses her private practice on executive clemency issues.
Love noted an inventory project conducted by the American Bar Association that has identified hundreds of laws and rules in every state that impose restrictions or exclude people with a criminal record from many benefits and opportunities, including business licenses and housing.
“This is a fascinating area of the law that very few people are familiar with, either in practice or in the academy,” Love said.