By DAn Rodricks
At nearly 65 years, Arthur Biddle’s stint as a Maryland prison inmate must have been among the longest ever. It ended in February when he died, at age 86, in the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services confirmed his death but not its cause. (The department since has reported that a Roxbury inmate in his 80s died in February of COVID-19. The state did not identify the inmate.)
I first learned about the duration of Biddle’s incarceration a couple of years ago, and I’ve been curious to know why the state felt a need to keep him locked up for so long. He went to prison two weeks short of his 20th birthday, in 1954.
To give you a sense of how far back this goes, when Biddle went on trial, hanging still was Maryland’s capital punishment. Convicted killers were escorted at midnight to a high platform in a chamber of the old stone penitentiary in Baltimore, fitted with a noose and dropped through a trapdoor.
But his jury in Cecil County preferred that not happen to Arthur Biddle, a 19-year-old soldier who just had returned from the Korean War. “Guilty of Murder in the First Degree without Capital Punishment” was the verdict entered on the court docket in Elkton on March 30, 1954.
Five months earlier, while on leave from Fort Dix in New Jersey, Biddle had killed his uncle, Gilbert Cavender, with two blasts from a shotgun. It was the violent conclusion of a dispute over property in Elkton.
Cavender and his wife had purchased the Main Street house that belonged to Biddle’s late grandmother, Anna Clay. Biddle had been raised in the house, and he claimed his grandmother had intended to leave it to him. But Anna Clay had died in 1949 without a will. The Elkton Bank handled her estate and sold the house to the Cavenders.
After shooting his uncle, Biddle walked to the old county jail and surrendered.
At trial, the issue was not his guilt but his state of mind. The defense claimed Biddle was “not in control of his mental faculties” at the time of the crime. A state psychiatrist, Dr. Jacob Morgenstern, said the soldier had obsessed about his uncle’s purchase of the house and suffered from “compulsion neurosis.”
A Cecil County judge, Floyd J. Kintner, sentenced Biddle to life in prison.
These facts were culled from newspaper accounts and from the 67-year-old court docket. I never had heard of Arthur Biddle until a couple of years ago when a researcher gave me a list of elderly inmates in Maryland prisons. At 85, Biddle was the second oldest on the list and the longest in custody.
When I first saw those numbers, I wondered why Biddle still was in prison, particularly because he had committed his only crime at a young age and because he had been sentenced with the possibility of one day being paroled.
Biddle’s death prompted me to push for answers.
As it turns out, his long stretch was not unbroken.
“In fact,” says Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the corrections department, “Mr. Biddle was once paroled, committed new crimes and escaped twice.”
According to records, Biddle earned parole in 1974, after 20 years in prison. But two years later he pleaded guilty to malicious destruction of property in Baltimore and that constituted a violation of the conditions of his release. He went back to prison to serve out his life sentence.
In 1977, he and another prisoner walked away from a minimum security prison camp on the Eastern Shore. Biddle and his fellow traveler told a Queen Anne’s County judge that they intended to buy booze from a local liquor store and bring it back to the prison. The judge was unimpressed with their stated intentions and found the men guilty of escape.
In 1980, Biddle again walked away from the camp, but this time he traveled to New York City and managed to find a job in a hotel.
After police grabbed him and returned him to the Eastern Shore, he claimed in court to have fled camp because he felt threatened by inmates who wanted him to sell drugs. An account in The Star-Democrat described Biddle, who then was 46, as a “balding, long-haired convict.”
Biddle told Judge Donaldson C. Cole that he had become a Christian Science practitioner while in prison and hoped for early release to care for his mother. “I realize now that taking a human life, God didn’t mean man to do this,” Biddle said.
His two escapes resulted in another nine years added to Biddle’s sentence. His mother died in 1981.
According to Vernarelli, Biddle was due for another parole hearing in 1986, but postponed it and never asked for another. That suggests that he was resigned to prison life and neither had ambition nor optimism for release.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote to Biddle to see if he would speak with me during a prison visit. I did not hear back. Attempts to reach two people believed to be his kin have been unsuccessful.
I wondered why the state would keep Arthur Biddle in prison into his 80s. Now we know. Biddle’s own actions and choices, early in life and in middle age, deprived him of the freedom and second chance that many other lifers earnestly work toward while serving time.
Would intense intervention, starting at 20, have better prepared him for release at 40? I don’t know, but I remain a believer in that. Prisons are for punishment.
But since they operate at taxpayer expense, we have a right to insist on more — that they produce better outcomes, better people. Those who do horrible things when they’re young should get a real shot at a second life before they grow too old, sick and despairing to care.
© 2021, The Baltimore Sun
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency