Proposed sentencing changes would traumatize victims’ families for years to come | COMMENTARY
By SCOTT SHELLENBERGER
FOR THE BALTIMORE SUN | APR 02, 2021 AT 6:00 AM
On May 21, 2018, Officer Amy Caprio died a terrible death in Baltimore County while responding to a report of burglary. Officer Caprio was intentionally run over by a stolen Jeep driven by Dawnta Harris who was acting as the lookout and getaway driver for three others who were committing their third burglary that day. Her death was recorded on her body camera and played at trial before her heartbroken family.
Her killer was sentenced to life in prison; the other three defendants were sentenced to 30 years. At sentencing, the family was advised that the judge could modify the sentences within the next five years. After that, only parole could shorten the terms. Within the last few months, however, all of that certainty has been put in jeopardy, threatening to further traumatize the victims of violent crime and their families. The Maryland judiciary’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure has proposed changes to sentencing rules that would permit later revision of long sentences if the defendants were under age 25 when the sentences were imposed or the individuals had already served a significant amount of time and reached an advanced age. And several bills before the Maryland legislature are also seeking to allow such sentence amendments. If the changes are adopted, it will continue the nightmare for Officer Caprio’s family and others like them. By my calculations, family members would have to come back to court three times in 2036, four times in 2038, four times in 2041, three times in 2042, four times in 2044, once in 2048 and once every 6 years thereafter to face a possible reduction of sentence for one of the people whose actions led to their loved ones’ death. All of this will be before a judge who was not at trial. The torture of the family will never end. Why is this happening? The movement is to change Maryland Rule 4-345: Sentencing, Revisory Power of Court. This rule has been around for decades. Under it, a defendant’s sentence can be decreased but not increased. Currently, a defendant has to ask for such a modification within 90 days after initial sentencing. A judge can hold the motion but must make a decision within five years. After that period, the judge loses the power to make any changes. That five-year limitation came into existence in 2004 for a valid reason — public outcry. Among the cases that led to increased calls to consider victims’ rights was that of Vincent Greco. In 1981, Mr. Greco raped and killed his girlfriend’s 79-year-old grandmother. In 1982, he was convicted of murder and rape, and given two consecutive life sentences. In 1992, 10 years after the sentence was imposed, the judge modified the sentence to 50 years. Greco was eventually released. The victim’s family, who originally thought he was away for life, suddenly could see him walking the streets. The outcry was so strong that in 2001, legislation was drafted to limit a judge’s power to reconsider sentences to one year. Chief Judge Robert Bell declared that the state’s judges would support a limit on the time in which they could reduce sentences, telling the Washington Post that “judges don’t react to public clamor … but, we do react to what is good for the system and society as a whole.” In 2004, as a result of that pronouncement, the five-year limit was placed in the Rule. For 17 years, it has worked. So, why change the rule and go back to a system that failed victims? Why should we force families back into court, decades after a case is over? With the proposed change, two categories of inmates could get repeated chances at early release, through a judge’s “look back,” possible every six years. Those eligible include inmates who have been in jail 15 years or more, who reached the age of 65, and inmates who were convicted of committing offenses before the age of 25 and have served more than 15 years or 60% of a longer sentence. The latter is the situation the Caprios would find themselves in, as the defendants in their case were all teenagers at the time of sentencing. The rationale for allowing modifications to criminals under age 25 relies on the assertion that the brain does not fully develop until age 25. Considering all the rights and responsibilities we give 16-, 18- and 21-year-olds, I am not sure why in the case of murder you are not fully developed, and should not be held fully accountable, until 25. Under this change, there are 2,795 inmates serving life sentences in Maryland who would get a hearing if they committed their crime before age 25 or are now age 65. There are also 3,249 inmates serving 15 years or more who were age 25 or younger at the time of the crime. That means thousands of families will get a letter from the state to come to court again — repeatedly. We can’t allow this retraumatizing of victims to happen. A public outcry made a difference 17 years ago, and it can again. Let’s let the courts and legislature know this is not acceptable. Scott Shellenberger is the state’s attorney for Baltimore County; his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.