Cahill says remarks at killer's sentencing not meant to offend Testifying for 2 hours, judge acknowledges comments were imperfect

February 22, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr., testifying in his own defense before a disciplinary board yesterday, said his remarks in sentencing a Parkton wife-killer were imperfect but not meant to offend.

Judge Cahill testified for almost two hours during the second and final day of the Judicial Disabilities Commission's probe into the remarks, which were criticized as sexist and insensitive. The commission, which could recommend his removal from the bench, began deliberating shortly after noon but did not reach a decision.

At issue are remarks made in the October 1994 sentencing of Kenneth L. Peacock, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter for killing his wife after finding her in bed with another man. Judge Cahill said he could sentence in anonymity and that Mr. Peacock was a "noncriminal." He also said, "I seriously wonder how many married men -- married five, four years -- would have the strength to walk away without inflicting some corporal punishment."

The commission's investigative counsel, Christopher J. Romano, charged that the comments violate the canon of judicial ethics by showing gender bias and the appearance of impropriety. But Judge Cahill's defense lawyers said the comments were appropriate when taken in context.

Addressing accusations of sexism, the judge said the fact that the victim was a woman and the killer a man played no role in his imposing the 18-month sentence, which was below the sentencing guidelines of three to eight years. The sentence, he testified at the Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis, "would not be any different if these roles were reversed, and I say that with all my heart."

Often speaking in incomplete sentences, interrupting himself and deviating from the questions asked, the judge testified, "I never said or inferred what he did was noncriminal." He said he merely meant that Mr. Peacock was a first-time offender.

When H. Russell Smouse, one of Judge Cahill's lawyers, asked what he meant by saying that he could sentence in anonymity, the judge testified it was unusual that none of the victim's family was in the courtroom awaiting the sentence announcement.

"I merely acknowledged the circumstances that morning," he said. "I guess I could have used a word different from anonymity, but that's what came to mind."

The judge said Maryland law mitigates murder to manslaughter when there is rage provoked by certain factors, including spousal adultery. Under such circumstances, "what we usually see is physical violence," and that is what was meant by the term "corporal punishment," he said.

He noted during his testimony that judges are required to explain a sentence, and are in violation of judicial ethics if they consider any outcry the sentence might provoke.

He acknowledged that he might have chosen different words if he had thought about his comments ahead of time. "I did the best I could," he told the seven-member commission.

Mr. Romano, in his cross-examination, reminded the judge that the comments offended many people and touched off protests.

"I don't agree or disagree with those views," the judge said. "I said they have the right to express them."

Judge Cahill also said that his comments about corporal punishment were not intended to condone domestic violence. "For a man to strike a woman is a terrible thing. Even a slap," he said.

The commission -- three women and four men -- has the power to issue a wide range of responses that include dismissing the charges, issuing a reprimand or recommending that Judge Cahill be removed from the bench.

The commission's executive secretary said that she did know how long it would take the panel to reach a decision.

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