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'Endless' sentencing hearings in Maryland take toll on victims, families

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Local,Crime,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."

Reconsideration vs. review
Defendants in Maryland have options for getting new sentences.
Reconsideration: Any defendant can ask the judge who sentenced him or her to reconsider the sentence. The judge can lower a sentence or keep it the same, but cannot raise it.
Review panel: Defendants who receive a penalty of two years or more in prison can ask for a new sentence from a three-judge panel. Defendants must request the sentence review panel. The panel can raise a sentence, lower it or leave it unchanged.
Source: Maryland code

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.

ebabay@washingtonexaminer.com

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