Judge Duckett's decision

May 25, 1994

Julie Gilbert and Jose Trias might still be alive had Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr. sent Scotland Williams to jail two months ago. Then, Williams was an anonymous petty thief; now, he stands accused of a double murder.

It looks as though Judge Duckett made a terrible mistake; he has been honest enough to admit as much. For the victims' families and friends, knowing that the court had Williams in its grasp and let him go must be tormenting and infuriating. For others, what happened is proof that the criminal-justice system fails to protect us.

Still, it is unfair to savage Judge Duckett for freeing Williams. This was not a situation where a judge overlooked a long criminal record or ignored signs that a person posed a danger to society. Judge Duckett treated Williams like a minor offender because his record showed him to be just that. Williams served 30 days for theft in 1982 and wasn't arrested again until 1993, when he burglarized a Severna Park home. He cashed a check in Baltimore that he had stolen from that house. He was tried in the city for theft and passing a bad check and was sentenced to six months. He had just completed that term when he pleaded guilty to theft before Judge Duckett for the part of that crime that occurred in Anne Arundel County.

Harrowing though the 1993 burglary must have been for the victims, it was small-fry stuff as criminal behavior goes. Prosecutors say Judge Duckett's ruling -- he sentenced Williams to six months but gave him credit for time served -- was in line with state sentencing guidelines, which recommend probation to one year for those with a minor record convicted of theft. Beyond the record itself, there was nothing obvious in Williams' past to indicate he might be a time bomb, although Judge Duckett did not order a pre-sentence investigation, a background check which sometimes points up signs of trouble.

The kind of criminal Judge Duckett apparently thought Williams was does not get sent to jail to protect society. Petty criminals with short records get sent to jail for punishment, usually for a short term, with the hope that a taste of prison will prove sour enough to deter them from getting into trouble again. Judge Duckett decided that, having just had one dose of jail, Williams didn't need another. It was a decision with tragic consequences. Unfortunately, there was no way he, or anyone else, could have foreseen that.

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