‘Endless’ sentencing hearings in Maryland take toll on victims, families

The Washington Examiner

By Emily Babay

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.

“There’s almost no finality in a criminal case,” said Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center. “Victims want justice, and you want justice to be final.”

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.

Several other recent high-profile cases that appeared to have been closed are still ongoing, as the defendants have asked review panels to take up their cases.

Brittany Norwood, serving life in prison without parole for the brutal killing of a co-worker at a Bethesda yoga store, and Keith Little, sentenced to the same punishment for stabbing his boss to death at Suburban Hospital, have both asked panels to review their sentences. Both are waiting to learn whether hearings will be granted.

Deontra Gray, one of four teenagers who pleaded guilty in the slaying of D.C. school principal Brian Betts in Silver Spring, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He requested a sentence review panel, and a hearing is scheduled for September.

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.



Sidebar: Panels created to quell controversy

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.

It’s rare to have a separate review process — like the three-judge panels — solely for sentences, said Douglas Berman, a sentencing law expert at Ohio State University. Local officials said a handful of other states have some form of sentencing reviews, but no other state appears to have a system directly comparable to Maryland’s, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Sentencing review panels might be an effective way to correct for extreme sentences, Berman said.

“There’s some value in having a panel double-check whether that’s not just permissible, but a good judgment,” Berman said.

In recent years, 70 percent to 80 percent of sentences in Maryland are within guidelines, according to the State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy.

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