Earlier Cahill sentence was controversial CAHILL CONTROVERSY

October 21, 1994|By Glenn Small and Sheridan Lyons | Glenn Small and Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff Writers

The judge who made the Baltimore County Courthouse a magnet for TV tabloid shows when he gave a Parkton trucker 18 months in jail for killing his unfaithful wife is a gruff, tough-talking former tax prosecutor who developed a reputation for a mercurial temper during his four years on the bench.

Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr., 62, has come under nationwide criticism for handing a token work release sentence to Kenneth Peacock, 36, who shot his 31-year-old wife, Sandra, at least two hours after finding her in bed with a man she had picked up in a bar in February.

Much of the criticism has centered on his comments from the bench at Monday's sentencing hearing, in which he said he understood the defendant's rage, although he could not condone the killing.

A transcript of the hearing shows he may have made those remarks under the assumption that they would go unreported.

"The courtroom contains visitors only on one side," he said, referring to the fact that the victim's family made no formal presentation. "And so I get the benefit of, in effect, sentencing in anonymity. . . . The chances are this case will not even be written up. There is a chance that it might because of the current emphasis on spousal violence and that phenomenon in our society."

Since then, he has declined to comment.

But Judge Cahill is no stranger to controversy. Earlier this year, he came under fire for giving a 9-month jail sentence to a drunken driver who struck and killed 10-year-old Benjamin Merrell of Reisterstown, who died as his father watched while he was riding his bike on a neighbor's lawn.

At Monday's sentencing hearing, Judge Cahill alluded to that case and said sentencing people who have no criminal records presents "brutally difficult choices."

He has not always appeared shy about making those tough choices. Earlier this year, Judge Cahill sent a man to prison for 15 years for robbing a Catonsville lawyer of $2 with a pellet gun.

A graduate of Loyola High School, Holy Cross College and Georgetown University School of Law, Judge Cahill was a federal tax prosecutor in the early 1960s.

Later, he was as a partner in a prominent downtown law firm -- Melnicove, Kaufman, Weiner & Smouse -- once again specializing in tax law. That firm dissolved in 1989, and for several years, Judge Cahill wrangled in court over his share of the firm's debts.

He has been active in legal circles, serving two terms on the board of governors of the Maryland State Bar Association and on other bar committees.

In August 1990, Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed Judge Cahill to the Baltimore County Circuit Court, and two years ago he successfully stood for election to a 15-year term.

Many lawyers and judges who were asked about Judge Cahill this week declined to comment or would only comment if their remarks were not printed.

Those who were willing to talk described him as a tough judge with a short fuse -- a characteristic Judge Cahill alluded to in own his remarks during the sentencing. Some criticized him for verbally abusing lawyers on both sides of criminal cases. But others praised his evenhandedness.

"I've never found him to be anything but fair," said Joseph S. Lyons, a Towson attorney who ran for the Circuit Court bench in 1992. "The sentences have been reasonble. He doesn't favor the state or the defense."

Jerri Peyton, a defense attorney, defended Judge Cahill.

"He takes great care to fashion an appropriate sentence," she said. "I think he is -- from the aspect of doing what he thinks is right -- a wonderful jurist. He doesn't allow public opinion to sway him."

She added that "women have not been treated badly in that courtroom."

One defense lawyer described Judge Cahill as hot-headed, saying "he loses it constantly," although he is equally unpleasant to both sides. However, the same lawyer said Judge Cahill is extremely intelligent and willing to change his mind if persuaded by law or evidence.

Another said prosecutors dislike him because he's fair to both sides, while a third said the judge was at one time "very pompous and explosive," but has mellowed lately.

Mr. Lyons defended the judge in the current controversy.

"If the state is willing to take a plea for manslaughter, there must have been a lot of mitigation. I don't see why Judge Cahill should be blamed if the state was willing to take a plea to manslaughter."

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