Angered by the car-hijacking that dragged a neighbor to her death, hundreds of Howard County residents crowded into a school cafeteria last night to meet with police and call for maximum penalties against those responsible.
When one person asked about the maximum punishment that was possible, county police Lt. Dan Davis said, "There is a death penalty in the state."
The crowd erupted with applause.
About 400 people attended the session at Forest Ridge Elementary, along the Gorman Road route in Savage where 34-year-old Pamela Basu was dragged to her death by her stolen BMW Tuesday morning. Her 22-month-old daughter had been inside the car when it was taken.
Two suspects from Washington -- Rodney Eugene Soloman, 27, and Bernard Eric Miller, 16 -- are in custody, held without bail on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery.
Howard County prosecutor Michael Rexroad said a decision on whether to seek the death penalty will be made after a grand jury decides whether to indict the suspects. The case is to be presented to the grand jury Sept. 17, he said.
For the residents seeking assurances of retribution against those responsible, Howard County Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass suggested writing letters to the state's attorney backing the maximum penalty and saying, "Don't plea bargain with these people."
Mr. Soloman, who police alleged was driving Mrs. Basu's car, had been released from a District of Columbia jail last week when a judge ruled he no longer could be held on a 4-month-old drug charge.
He was jailed May 4 in the District of Columbia on charges of intent to distribute heroin. He was released Sept. 1 under the district's Bail Reform Act of 1992. The act says a defendant can't be held in jail before trial solely because he can't afford bail.
"Under the circumstances, it left no options but to release the individual as mandated by the law," said Associate D.C. Superior Court Judge Reggie B. Walton, who released Mr. Soloman.
Mark Liedl, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said prosecutors had requested that Mr. Soloman be held without bail on the heroin charge during a hearing in Washington May 11 because "we believed he posed a danger to the community" based on his prior record.
But court Commissioner Berg Morton set bail at $5,000.
Mr. Soloman subsequently petitioned the court to be released, which prosecutors opposed.
"We requested that the defendant be held without bond; the court rejected our request," Mr. Liedl said. "It's within the judge's discretion."
As a condition to Mr. Soloman's release, Judge Walton ordered that he obey a 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew, verify his address with D.C. Pretrial Services, attend a weekly drug program, report in person to Pretrial Services weekly and refrain from crime.
Mr. Soloman's record -- which spans nearly a decade -- includes two convictions for robberies in 1983 and 1984. For the 1983 robbery, he received six years' probation. For the 1984 robbery, he received a sentence of up to six years.
On Sept. 24, 1990, he was released from a federal correctional facility on the robbery conviction, said Kathy Boyer, director of administrative services of the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency. He served all of his time and is not on parole.
Court records show that he was charged with assault with intent to kill in June 1991 in a Washington street shooting, but that case was dismissed.
Because Bernard Eric Miller is a juvenile, his court records were not available.
At a District Court hearing yesterday, both suspects requested lawyers, and both were denied bail. The Miller youth was charged as an adult.
The suspects are being held in special isolation cells at the Howard County Detention Center. James Rollins, the center's director, said he took the extraordinary step of isolating the suspects "because this case evokes a lot of emotion."
Police and witnesses say the two suspects sped nearly two miles in the BMW with the 34-year-old Savage woman either clinging or pinned to its side. The car was stopped at least once, when the toddler was placed on the roadside unharmed about half a mile from the site of the car-jacking.
The state medical examiner's office was completing an autopsy on Mrs. Basu's body yesterday and would not divulge details about the injuries and cause of death.
Mr. Soloman and the Miller youth drove to Howard County with two other juveniles, a 17-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy, police said. The purpose of the trip was to take the girl to the Woodstock Job Corps Center, a training school and trade center she had paid to attend, police said.
But the group got lost looking for the center and eventually ran out of gas on Interstate 95 before reaching their destination, police said.
Mr. Soloman and the Miller youth went on foot to look for gas while the two others walked off on their own to find a ride to Woodstock. A relative of the 16-year-old later came to Howard County to pick him up.