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April 30, 2012

Maryland's distinctive (and mysterious) approach to sentencing review

A recent high-profile and sad drunk-driving case has brought new attention to a low-profile and distinctive aspect of Maryland's sentencing system.  This recent local article, headlined "'Endless' sentencing hearings in Maryland take toll on victims, families," discusses the cases and surrounding proceedings that have generated significant attention in the Old Line State:

In January, Carolyn Hoover sat in a packed Montgomery County courtroom to watch a judge sentence the young man who drunkenly crashed his car into a telephone pole and trees, killing her son and two others.

Less than four months later, her family was back in court for another sentencing hearing, and a three-judge panel cut 21-year-old Kevin Coffay's prison term from 20 years to eight.

"I felt sick inside," said Hoover, whose 20-year-old son, John, was killed. All involved in the crash attended Magruder High School or were recent graduates. "Every time we have to go to another hearing, it sets us back months."

The case has raised questions about an unusual and little-known Maryland law that lets defendants ask for a new sentence from a three-judge panel, even if there was nothing illegal about their original punishment. The result can be an agonizing process for victims and their families, who are often taken by surprise and must endure numerous court dates yet never feel like a case has reached its end....

It's difficult to tell how often panels review sentences and reduce them. David Soule, executive director of the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy, said the commission does not keep data on sentencing review panels. A Maryland courts spokeswoman and local state's attorney's offices also could not provide that data.

In addition to the panels, defendants can also ask their sentencing judge to reconsider a sentence. It's routine for defendants to request a new sentence through at least one of those avenues, said Seth Zucker, spokesman for the Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office.

Most requests for sentencing panels are denied without a hearing and the sentences remain unchanged, said Byron Warnken, a Maryland lawyer who specializes in post-conviction work. But when a hearing is granted, the sentence is reduced about three-quarters of the time, he estimated.

The three-judge panels are most likely to reduce lengthy sentences, Warnken said. "They can throw you a bone without letting you walk away from prison," he said....

Combined with parole and other appeals, prosecutors and victims advocates say, there's often no end in sight. "Our concern here is the virtually endless review process for even legal sentences," Zucker said.

Hoover said the process has made it nearly impossible to move forward after her son's death. "I would rather have had a lighter sentence to begin with and not go through what we had to go through," she said.

This companion article, headlined "Panels created to quell controversy," provides this brief backstory concerning Maryland's sentence review panels:

The sentencing review panels now under fire in Maryland due to a recent drunken-driving case in Montgomery County were created in hopes of quelling controversy over sentences.

A law creating the three-judge panels was enacted after a 1965 report on criminal sentences in the state found "alarmingly disparate" penalties, according to Maryland Court of Appeals opinions that address the act and its history.

I tend to be a strong proponent of strong mechanisms for appellate review of sentencing decisions by individual judges, and thus I am very drawn to the structure of Maryland's means for reviewing sentences. But such a review system ought to bring greater regularity and transparency to the sentencing process, and yet this article suggested Maryland's practice seems wrapped in irregularity and uncertainty.

April 30, 2012 at 09:06 AM | Permalink


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Maybe they should send the requests to the three judge panel to begin with. Individual judge sentencing can be lotto like, luck of the draw, arbitrary.

krg def attny

Posted by: krg def attny | Apr 30, 2012 12:29:32 PM

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