WESTOVER – Sheila Harding watched from behind a glass wall as the man who murdered her daughter with three blasts from a shotgun explained why he should be let out on parole after serving half of his 30-year sentence.
It was not the first time Harding has watched James Oldenburg plead his case to the Maryland Parole Commission. But at this hearing, she got to do something that crime victims have only recently been allowed to do in Maryland.
She got to have her say before Oldenburg and the commission.
“He doesn’t have to look at us, but he has to know we’re there,” she said after the March parole hearing at the Eastern Correctional Institution.
“I think they should have had these a long time ago,” said Harding, whose daughter, Jamie Ann Bush, was murdered March 21, 1982, in Baltimore.
Victims of certain violent crimes have been allowed since Oct. 1, 1994, to attend parole hearings and address the commission before the criminal was in the room. Two years ago, victims were given the right to testify during the hearings, while the criminal is present.
Victims — or a designated representative or surviving family member — must request an open hearing at least four months ahead of time. They are allowed to give a five-minute statement during the hearing.
There have been 110 open parole hearings since they were first allowed in 1994. The General Assembly this year approved a bill expanding the types of crimes eligible for open hearings.
“I like the open parole hearing. It gives us a chance to say what’s in our hearts,” said Harding.
Patricia Cushwa, chairperson of the Maryland Parole Commission, said the open hearings seem to have helped victims and their families.
“They don’t get closure unless they can access the system somehow,” she said. “As awful as it may sound, I think these people leave feeling a lot better.”
Roberta Roper, director of the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation for victims’ rights, said she has heard “nothing but praise” from victims and family members who have participated in the hearings.
“The families I’ve talked to have been very impressed with the dignity and respect they were shown. They were glad to be heard,” Roper said.
After hearing Oldenburg’s case, parole commissioners Edward Woods and Frank Pappas agreed that the open hearings were overdue and that they help in providing closure for the victims.
“To be able to say how they felt, it’s a help to them,” said Woods.
Pappas said the hearings also let victims know exactly what is going on. He said most are more factual than Oldenburg’s, which erupted into shouted accusations from family members at one point.
“You never know what is going to happen with the emotion,” Woods said.
During the hearing, Oldenburg sat across the table from the commissioners with his back to family members, who were behind a glass wall about 15 feet from him. The family was told not to make any noise or facial expressions until their allotted five minutes.
A shade was drawn as Oldenburg was walked into the room. It was his eighth parole hearing since the plea bargain that gave him a 30-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to second- degree murder.
Oldenburg, who admitted having a drug problem and selling drugs, said he was high on PCP on the night of the murder and about to commit suicide because of an argument he had had with Bush.
He said Bush, who was pregnant at the time, told him to go ahead and kill himself and then told him the baby was not his. At that point, he said, “I just lost it.”
He shot her three times, went across the street to call an ambulance and then waited outside on the front steps.
“You never at any time thought of going back to render any kind of first aid?” Pappas asked. Oldenburg said he did not and “felt very bad about that” but was “a very jealous and sick individual” at the time.
Oldenburg also explained his record before and during his 15-year stay in prison before Harding and her daughter, Irene Bush, had five minutes to speak.
They were supposed to talk through a speakerphone from their room, but it was broken so they poked their heads through a doorway about six feet to the left of Oldenburg, who sat with his back to them.
“She said please Jimmy don’t. I hear this every night before I go to sleep,” Harding said to the parole commissioners.
Irene Bush hung on the door and leaned in Oldenburg’s direction, shouting that he should have been sentenced to death. At that point, the commissioners signaled to a guard to move in between Bush and Oldenburg, while Harding stepped in to calm her other daughter.
“This man has ruined my life. She was my sister … I looked up to her, she was my idol,” Irene Bush said. “My sister is never coming up for parole.”
She said Oldenburg killed Jamie Bush because she refused to get back together with him after they broke up.
“Just absolutely everything he said was a lie,” said Harding.
After the family members had their say, a shade was drawn again while Oldenburg walked out.
The parole commission can grant parole, schedule another hearing or refuse the request. If the request is refused, the prisoner will not be considered for parole again.
The commissioners set another parole hearing for Oldenburg in three years, saying he had not kept a clean record since his last hearing and had not been truthful about a psychological exam he took earlier this year.
Harding later said she did not know how much impact her words had on the commissioners, but that it was definitely still worth it. It was especially beneficial for her youngest son, Jimmy, because seeing Oldenburg for the first time gave him some closure on the situation.
“The images he had of this man were a lot different than what he saw from the back,” she said.
Harding said the hearings do not bring back bad memories as much as they “make you a little more angry” and remove a scab over a wound that never goes away.
“It’s like losing a part of your soul…I hear my daughter every night,” she said.
But she said the hearings are “good therapy” for the families and give them a feeling of control. “I would walk through fire to do that [speak] … I would go through this every month if I had to,” Harding said.
If she could change the procedure, she said, she would make the inmate face the victims.
“He should be made to face the family,” Harding said. “I want to look him in the eye.”
The family was told that Oldenburg could not be forced to face them. Even so, prison officials said, he knew they were there and didn’t want them there.
And Harding — who was accompanied by two children, her brother and her husband — said there is no doubt that the family will be ready to go through the process again at Oldenburg’s next parole hearing.
“I will be down there to fight it again in three years,” she said.