ANNAPOLIS -- Dressed in black from her hat to her shoes, a Bowie widow listened as a judge read aloud her late husband's suicide letter, the letter that would save her from prison.
" 'I have decided to take my own life rather than be put in jail. Please don't be too hard on my wife. None of this was her fault," Circuit Judge Eugene Lerner read yesterday from a letter by convicted tax evader William J. Schuhl, 49.
" 'My attorney will help her work out the tax bill, but please, from the grave, I respectfully request you do not impose any jail time. She will not survive it.' "
The letter was postmarked Oct. 17 -- the day Mr. Schuhl, a longtime tax protester, fatally shot himself. A week earlier, he and his wife, Martha H. Schuhl, 46, were convicted of failing to file tax returns for three straight years. They were looking at jail time, said Assistant Attorney General Norman L. Smith, who estimated Mrs. Schuhl would have been sentenced to two years in prison. The maximum penalty she and her husband faced was 15 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
But when Mrs. Schuhl's case was called for sentencing in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, Mr. Smith recommended probation before judgment.
"The reason for our recommendation is just simple compassion," Mr. Smith said. "It really does appear he was the driving force behind this. I think it's fair to say that if not for Mr. Schuhl, she wouldn't have done this. That's not a defense, but it's mitigation."
Both Schuhls were convicted of three counts of willfully failing to file tax returns after a three-day jury trial. Mrs. Schuhl's conviction was struck down yesterday, and she was placed on a year of supervised probation. She was ordered to pay $1,998 in back taxes from 1987-1989 and $140 in court costs and to file returns in the future.
Mr. Smith said the state could go after the estimated $7,000 in taxes owed by Mr. Schuhl through civil action against his estate.
The day he died, Mr. Schuhl mailed letters to Mr. Smith, Judge Lerner and to Delegate Charles J. Ryan, D-Prince George's.
In the letter to Delegate Ryan, he wrote: "Now that I'm gone, perhaps you'll understand how serious I was. . . . I would rather be a dead, free Marylander than a political prisoner, which I would have been if I had not taken this action."
Judge Lerner told Mrs. Schuhl he was shocked by her husband's suicide. "It's an awfully heavy penalty to pay, having to lose your husband over this," the judge said.
In a brief interview after the hearing, an emotional Mrs. Schuhl said, "I've gotten through it a day at a time, an hour at a time, with friends and family.
"That was my husband's last act of love, that I wouldn't face jail time."