Outcry follows sentence in chloroform death Four-month jail term not enough, some say

January 31, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

Victims' rights groups sharply criticized the 120-day jail term given yesterday by a Howard County judge to a 52-year-old accountant in the 1993 chloroform death of his 20-year-old girlfriend.

Melvin Robert Bowers, formerly of Ellicott City, could have received 10 years in prison for his Nov. 8 involuntary manslaughter conviction in the death of Geneva Marie Hodge of Baltimore. She died after Bowers put a chloroform-soaked rag over her nose and mouth and fell asleep, leaving the rag in place.

But Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. imposed the minimum four-month term -- minus 25 days Bowers already had served -- and did not require probation. The judge allowed him to remain free on $50,000 bond to complete business arrangements, ordering him to report to jail Feb. 7.

"Four months is an awfully short sentence for killing someone when you're giving them a dangerous substance," said Dorothy Lenning, director of the domestic legal violence clinic at the House of Ruth.

Ms. Lenning said the sentence for the man prosecutors called "reckless and grossly negligent" sends a message to the community that courts are not serious about dispensing justice in such offenses.

"If he gets four months for killing his girlfriend, how does that deter other people from doing harm?" he said. "They don't have the feeling that there's going to be punishment."

By contrast, Judge Kane earlier yesterday ordered a 19-year-old Lochearn man to spend seven years in prison for a shooting last March in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village that wounded a teen-age rival in a dispute over a girl. (See article, Page 3B.)

Renee Dudnikov, a longtime volunteer at Compassionate Friends Maryland, said the Bowers sentence sends a sad message to the victim's family.

"You know what it's saying to them? It's saying that their daughter was worth nothing," said Ms. Dudnikov, whose or-ganization is a support group for grieving parents. "This man will walk out of there in 120 days. He can remake his life, so it's no big deal. But you can never replace a child."

A mother's grief

Family members wrote an victim-impact statement expressing their grief, which Judge Kane allowed to be read in court by Ms. Hodge's mother, Audrey Jenkins.

Ms. Jenkins said her daughter was the life of the party and was always helpful when people needed her.

"I'll never see her wedding day, her children, her special moments," she said in a tearful voice from the witness stand.

"Because of him, she is no longer with us. So please, by the power of Jesus, let Mr. Bowers serve his time."

After the verdict, she was stunned.

"It seems that a drug dealer gets more time than a person who takes someone's life," said Ms. Jenkins, who listened to other criminal cases in Judge Kane's courtroom while waiting for the Bowers sentencing.

According to testimony at Bowers' trial in November, he gave Ms. Hodge chloroform to treat a toothache on Sept. 6, 1993.

Two trials

The defense contended that Ms. Hodge's death was an accident, but he was convicted after 2 1/2 hours of deliberation by a jury in his second trial in the incident. The first trial ended in August 1994 when a jury convicted him of reckless endangerment but could not reach a verdict on manslaughter.

The reckless endangerment conviction was merged with the involuntary manslaughter conviction in the second trial.

Ms. Hodge died from a deadly mix of alcohol and chloroform after she and Bowers spent a night of drinking and sex at his former home in the 2800 block of Southview Road in Ellicott City.

Howard State's Attorney Marna McLendon, who prosecuted the case, said evidence showed that Bowers waited nine hours before reporting the death to police. In the interim, he did laundry, went to a supermarket three times and consulted two ministers and a lawyer, the prosecutor said.

Bowers put Ms. Hodge's body on a tarpaulin and began digging a grave in the back yard of his home, Ms. McLendon said.

Louis Willemin, the defense attorney, said Bowers was not responsible for the death. He said his client offered Ms. Hodge aspirin for her toothache, but that she asked for chloroform.

'The closest person to me'

Yesterday, Mr. Willemin said Bowers has been treated for "major depression" since the incident and had lost his business as an accountant and financial adviser. He said Bowers has made recent business contacts that would vanish if he were sent to prison, and said he doubted Bowers would fare well there.

Bowers, in his tearful allocution, said the death was "clearly unintentional" and that he suffered from the loss.

"Over a period of time, she became the closest person to me that I ever knew," he said. "I'll never have that again."

Mr. Willemin and the court's pre-sentence investigation suggested a suspended sentence. The prosecutor asked for a sentence within state guidelines.

"The jury found that he contributed to the death of another person," Judge Kane said. "This is something that he will have to live with."

Family members seemed puzzled afterward as Ms. McLendon explained the sentence.

Christine Tirado said she disagreed with the sentence but that she believed Bowers cared about her sister.

"She was the best thing to ever happen to him," Ms. Tirado said. "Now he's taken the best thing from all of us."

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