ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers said Tuesday that it’s wrong for a governor to spring surprises on the people — especially when those surprises could let a convicted murderer go free.
But that is almost what happened in the case of a Caroline County double-murderer, whose life sentences were commuted to 45 years by former Gov. William Donald Schaefer as he left office.
“If the laws were in place before, this situation wouldn’t have gotten out of hand,” said Sen. Richard Colburn, R- Dorchester, who sponsored one of two bills aimed at reining in the governor.
Colburn’s bill would force governors to give 90 days public notice and notify the General Assembly before commuting an inmate’s sentence or granting a pardon. The public notice would not have to be posted in death penalty cases.
A separate bill, sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, would prohibit a lame-duck governor from granting a pardon or commutation.
Miller said he first noticed the problem years ago, when former Gov. Harry Hughes gave a series of full pardons right before he left office.
But it was Schaefer’s commutation of Scott F. Caldwell’s sentence that sparked the bills heard Tuesday by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Caldwell was convicted of murdering sisters Cynthia and Patricia Dean, 13 and 18, at their family’s coin-operated laundry in Hillsboro, in a 1972 robbery that netted him $28.
He was sentenced to two life terms. But Schaefer commuted the sentence to 45 years at the request of Caldwell’s attorney, former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who is a close ally of Schaefer’s. The commutation order was issued on Schaefer’s last day in office.
Prosecutors said they only learned of the commutation last year, after Caldwell was granted parole. The parole was retracted when state officials realized that they had not informed Caroline County prosecutors that Caldwell might be freed.
“Schaefer changed his sentence the night before he left office in 1995 without asking any questions,” Colburn said. “It didn’t play well on the Eastern Shore.”
But one opponent said in written testimony that the bills go too far. Emile Rutner, who chairs the Maryland Issues Committee of the Greater Washington Chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, said the governor should be trusted to make those decisions.
“If the people of this state have little faith that a governor who is about to leave office will exercise good judgment in granting clemency as authorized by the constitution, then the constitution should be amended to change the method and/or procedure for granting clemency,” wrote Rutner, of Takoma Park.
Miller’s bill would amend the state constitution. He said the idea is not to take away the governor’s authority, but to make sure that when that power is exercised by the governor, “he or she is accountable to the public.”
Miller’s bill would prevent a governor who is leaving office — or voted out — from granting pardons after the election in which his successor is chosen.
The answer is a simple one said Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil.
“Maybe we should make the governors serve the rest of the time,” he quipped.