Eight years for an innocent life Rock-thrower's sentence erodes confidence in justice system.

February 16, 1996

THE SENTENCING of Lothian teen-ager Jason W. Wyvill earlier this week does not inspire confidence in the justice system.

Wyvill killed a man -- Kevin Gallagher of Deale, a 38-year-old father of three -- when, for fun, he hurled a five-pound rock through the windshield of Mr. Gallagher's moving vehicle. Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Raymond G. Thieme sent Wyvill to jail for eight years. Mr. Gallagher's relatives weren't the only ones left wondering why the thoughtless taking of an innocent man's life cost so little.

Granted, Wyvill's sentence is only two years less than the maximum 10 years for manslaughter and actually a little more than what state guidelines recommended. Practically speaking, 10 years is barely more reasonable recompense than eight. Symbolically, however, maximum sentences carry weight. They send a message that the court considers a crime serious enough to warrant the strongest punishment possible.

A judge who levies the maximum sentence says, in essence, that he has considered the mitigating factors and found they neither outweigh nor excuse the deed. Wyvill should have gotten the maximum. At 17, he should have known that throwing rocks at moving cars could kill someone. He showed a wanton disregard for life. His expressions of remorse were token. These facts should have shaped his sentence. Instead, Judge Thieme gave him credit for pleading guilty.

The inappropriateness of this punishment becomes even more obvious compared to another sentence Judge Thieme handed down last fall. He sent a 17-year-old girl to jail for eight years for throwing her newborn baby out a window, seriously injuring it. That sentence fairly balanced the callousness of the offense against the circumstances: she panicked after giving birth alone; she showed heart-wrenching sorrow afterward, and the child is still alive.

Eight years was a proper sentence in that case. But as punishment for Wyvill, who set out to have fun by imperiling innocent people and succeeded in killing someone, eight years makes the courts look like they are designed more to protect criminals than law-abiding citizens. The truth is that fair sentences are handed down every day. But highly publicized cases such as this are the ones that shape attitudes toward the justice system.

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