Governors Can Make Adjustments in Justice

A long-shot for those claiming innocence who’ve run out of options in the United States is a governor’s pardon or commutation. The process, slowed by inherent political risk, usually requires persistent advocacy with credible indications of an error (or other reason for a correction), multiple advocates, and a lack of objection from key players in the justice system. In Maryland, after serving 28 years in prison, Mark Farley Grant has been granted a sentence commutation following years of advocacy by those who believed in his innocence.

In 1983, Grant, 14, was arrested and subsequently convicted of and imprisoned for a murder he’s always said he didn’t commit. When University of Maryland Law professors Renee Hutchins and Michael Milleman and their law students began investigating the case in 2004, they uncovered new evidence supporting Grant’s claim. In 2008, the UM team sent a report to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. They suggested that Grant had been framed for the murder. A key witness recanted, an alibi witness emerged, the parole commission found Grant not a threat to society, and the trial prosecutor supported the governor’s commutation of Grant’s sentence.

Grant also had a champion in the media. Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun kept his case in front of the public with reports such as this one, here.

On March 29, Gov. O’Malley, who had previously turned down 57 “lifers’” clemency or parole requests, commuted Grant’s sentence from life to life with all but 45 years suspended. Grant, 42, remains in prison as the parole commission makes his transition plan. His lawyers hope he’ll be out before Christmas after serving 28 years for a crime many now believe he didn’t commit.

The red flags of wrongful convictions proven by DNA analysis of crime scene evidence are now more apparent in cases without DNA. Governors’ decisions to alter a verdict or sentence will never be easy, but new understandings of the scope of and contributors to wrongful conviction rightfully should inform the process.

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