Court panel to probe judge in sentencing

October 20, 1994|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff Writer

A panel of lawyers and judges that deals with sex bias in Maryland's courts yesterday agreed to investigate a complaint against a Baltimore County judge who sentenced a Parkton trucker to 18 months in jail for killing his wife after finding her in bed with another man.

The court system's Select Committee on Gender Equality issued a statement saying remarks by Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr. "appear to reflect insensitivity to the serious issue of domestic violence" and "evoke stereotypical gender roles in the context of a deadly case of spousal abuse."

The group acted on a complaint by the Women's Law Center, a nonprofit group that deals with family issues, civil rights and selection of judges. The group's spokeswoman said Baltimore County courts have traditionally been hostile to women's interests in domestic cases.

The committee considers complaints about gender inequalities in the state courts, said Susan Carol Elgin, head of the complaints subcommittee. If found valid, the committee could refer a case for possible disciplinary action against the judge by the Judicial Disabilities Commission.

As the case drew intense national media attention, the father of the victim said that "she got a bum deal," while Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said it illustrated the need for more judges with sensitivity to domestic violence issues.

"How many more instances of judicial blindness must we encounter before we decide to actually do something about it?" Mr. Curran said.

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges alike defended the kind of plea bargaining involved in the case, and said the voluntary manslaughter charge was not unusual in homicide cases that involve husband and wife.

The uproar arose after Judge Cahill on Monday sentenced Kenneth Lee Peacock, 36, to 18 months in a county jail work release program after a guilty plea to manslaughter in the shooting death of his 31-year-old wife, Sandra Kaye Sloan Peacock.

According to the evidence, Peacock drove his rig home unexpectedly through a February ice storm and found Mrs. Peacock in bed with another man. He said he chased the man away at gunpoint, and then, after two hours of heavy drinking and arguing with his wife, shot her accidentally with his hunting rifle.

In explaining a sentence well below the minimum three years in Maryland's sentencing guidelines, Judge Cahill said he couldn't think of a situation that would provoke "an uncontrollable rage greater than this: for someone who is happily married to be betrayed in your personal life, when you're out working to support the spouse."

He said he wondered how many men could just walk away from the situation without inflicting "corporal punishment" on someone especially when fueled by alcohol.

He also noted that the victim's mother had expressed mixed feelings about the case and refused to help prepare a victim impact statement.

But the victim's father, Nathan Sloan, of Dangerfield, Texas, was less equivocal yesterday.

"Well, I didn't like it one bit," said Mr. Sloan, who is divorced from Mrs. Peacock's mother.

"I'd rather not say what I think about that judge. You don't just blow somebody's brains out. I don't condone what she did, but that did not justify what he did. I think she got a bum deal," he said.

The judge's remarks also provoked outrage from groups involved in women's issues and domestic violence.

"The judge seemed to relate to the man, he seemed to understand where he was coming from -- and the bottom line is he murdered his wife -- a couple of hours afterwards," said Christyne L. Neff, spokeswoman for the Women's Law Center.

"Number one, we want to see this issue as a manifestation of that bias and try to remedy it. Number two, when you have only one woman on the entire Circuit Court for Baltimore County, the bench is not reflective of the lawyers of Baltimore County."

"Baltimore County has been under a microscope for a while for that reason," she added. "Baltimore County has been viewed as a conservative jurisdiction judicially. . . . The long, long-term solution is to acknowledge there are qualified women who are not being considered as they should be for the bench."

Judge Cahill has declined to comment.

Assistant Baltimore County State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst said her office had received numerous calls, some objecting to the sentence and some to plea-bargaining.

But Circuit Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr., administrative judge for the circuit, said the system would collapse without plea bargains.

"It would be impossible for the courts to try all of these cases, even without a jury," he said. "You would need many many more judges, prosecutors, personnel -- many many more tax dollars."

Of the uproar over the Peacock sentencing, Judge DeWaters observed, "These kinds of things -- cases that have to do with sexual offenses or physical abuse of a spouse -- are something that strikes a chord with the public today."

Lawyers noted that in state courts, sentencing remains a matter for the judge's discretion.

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