Drunken driver to serve 18 months for fatal crash Sentence upsets victim's family

October 31, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Dr. Saleem A. Shah, a psychologist killed by a drunken driver last November, believed that the law needs to take behavioral science into account, that rehabilitation is more valuable than incarceration.

That was a difficult philosophy for Dr. Shah's survivors to accept at Friday's sentencing of the man responsible for his death and who had previously been convicted of drunken driving.

District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman sentenced William Scott Marcellino, 31, of the 19100 block of Grotto Lane, in Germantown, to a four-year prison term with all but 18 months suspended, three years of probation and 1,248 hours of community service.

Marcellino pleaded guilty Aug. 3 to homicide by motor vehicle, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, for the death of Dr. Shah, 60, of Catonsville.

Judge Gelfman told the courtroom the length of the sentence was intended to keep Marcellino in county jail, where he could receive better treatment for his drinking problem. A longer term would have put him in the state prison system.

"It's definitely too short," Clare Fisher, one of Dr. Shah's six daughters, said of the sentence. "We were hoping to get at least three years."

Ecford Voit, a colleague of Dr. Shah's, said his mentor's killer deserved more punishment, despite Dr. Shah's professional philosophy.

Marcellino originally was charged with manslaughter by automobile, which carries a maximum of 10 years in prison, for drunken driving and causing the Nov. 19 collision on Route 108 near Hall Shop Road in Clarksville.

He agreed to plead guilty to the homicide charge, which involves a lesser degree of negligence, rather than face trial on the manslaughter charge. Marcellino had been convicted of drunken driving in an incident in Virginia in 1985.

Dr. Shah, an expert on the law and mental health who worked at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, died Nov. 25, six days after his Toyota was hit head-on by Marcellino's Dodge truck, which had crossed the center line of Route 108.

"Those six days were the hardest six days of our lives," said Nargis Comiskey of her father, reading a victims' impact statement in court.

She asked that Marcellino be sentenced to the maximum five years, and be compelled to spend the rest of his life educating others about drinking and driving.

"We want this dangerous repeat offender off the streets and out from behind the wheel," Ms. Comiskey told the judge.

Judge Gelfman also heard testimony from Marcellino, his family and friends about his remorse, his efforts to treat his alcoholism and his warnings to others of the dangers of drunken driving.

His lawyer, Jonathan S. Smith, noted that Marcellino was found to have a 0.11-percent blood-alcohol content at the time of the accident, just above the state's legal limit of 0.10. The lawyer also said that the section of Route 108 where the collision took place was dark and the scene of past accidents.

The judge then gave a more-than half-hour explanation for the sentence, which she termed "a little bit unusual."

She spoke about the condition of state prisons and their shortage of counseling services, rehabilitation programs for drunken drivers, state sentencing guidelines and her experience teaching others in the legal profession about sentencing.

Even if Marcellino had received the maximum sentence, she said, "he could be released earlier than the actual length of the sentence with no supervision." A shorter sentence allows the court to compel an offender to seek rehabilitative treatment, she said.

The judge said that Marcellino can also be required to share his experience through community service, teaching others "that a vehicle is a lethal weapon," even for someone "without a shocking blood-alcohol content."

Marcellino's attorney said the sentence was fair, adding, "I think there's a desire to do penance."

Some of Dr. Shah's survivors were not moved by talk of rehabilitation.

"He should have done something about his problem [eight] years ago when he got arrested the first time," said Pat Fisher, one of Dr. Shah's sons-in-law.

But one of the doctor' daughters, Susan Shah-Blake, said she thought Marcellino's sobbing apology to the Shah family was sincere.

"If he truly is remorseful, and has regret, I can accept his sentence," Ms. Shah-Blake said.

Dr. Shah helped organize the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law through a fellowship program he administered at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda. He was considered by colleagues to be a leader in the fields of ethics, patients' rights and the psychiatric care of prisoners.

Thomas L. Lalley, who worked for 15 years with Dr. Shah, said Dr. Shah was "always one to feel that the law should take into account the findings of behavioral science. . . . The judge's approach to the sentencing was very much in keeping with that philosophy."

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