A Baltimore judge yesterday shaved nearly half the time off the prison term of city police Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto, saying the officer is "a unique prisoner" whose manslaughter case merits special considerations.
"This defendant may be a convicted criminal but he is unlike any other in the Department of Correction," Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes said.
He noted that Pagotto would be virtually the only police officer in Maryland prisons who was convicted of an accidental crime in the line of duty.
"There is a big difference between a police officer convicted of a crime unrelated to his sworn duty and an officer convicted of a crime committed during the course of that duty," Byrnes said.
Byrnes sentenced Pagotto Feb. 27 to 36 months in prison. But yesterday he modified the sentence and cut the prison time to 20 months, saying that he believed Pagotto would be unduly punished by a lengthier term in state prison.
Byrnes reiterated his belief that Pagotto ought to serve his time in a federal penitentiary, a recommendation correctional officials don't have to accept.
Many of the 31 law enforcement officers in Maryland prisons are in protective custody and are segregated from other prisoners for their protection.
Such a restricted status "would be in some ways more punitive than [for] other prisoners, some of whom [Pagotto] undoubtedly helped put there," the judge said.
Pagotto, who is free on $75,000 bail while an appeal is pending before the Court of Special Appeals, was found guilty Dec. 17 of involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment. He fatally shot 22-year-old Preston E. Barnes in February 1996 during a traffic stop.
Pagotto said his gun accidentally fired after Barnes ignored his commands to get out of the car.
Typically a decision to reduce a prison sentence is welcomed by the defendant and criticized by the family of the person who died. But yesterday, the reaction was the opposite, with Pagotto's attorney saying the sentence is still unacceptable and Barnes' mother saying she still is satisfied.
"It doesn't change the fact that he's still got to go to jail," said Pagotto's lawyer, Henry L. Belsky, who repeatedly has pointed to the officer's exemplary 15-year police record. "We're grateful for the reduction. But it won't make me happy until he's totally vindicated."
Sylvia Smith, Barnes' mother, said she wasn't disappointed with the judge's decision because, "All I want is for [Pagotto] to be behind bars for some amount of time, even if it were only one or two days."
She added: "Just as long as he goes. If it's one or two days, justice will be served to me. I think he should be behind bars to think about what he has done."
The judge's decision angered Officer Gary McLhinney, president Lodge 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police, who went to yesterday's hearing in support of Pagotto.
"We're very disappointed. Judge Byrnes had the opportunity to do the right thing here and he chose not to," McLhinney said, adding that he believed the Pagotto case will have a chilling effect on city police officers.
"An officer will hesitate because of this, because they'll fear they will go to prison" for drawing their guns, McLhinney said. "And hesitation by a police officer can be deadly."
Pagotto's attorneys had asked Byrnes to modify the sentence to 100 hours of community service or 10 months in jail. Belsky argued that state sentencing guidelines were unfair to Pagotto because they called for additional prison time for defendants who use guns during their crimes.
Byrnes agreed that the guideline did not apply, because Pagotto was a police officer required to carry a gun in the line of duty.
The judge said he did "a fairer calculation" of the sentencing guidelines in the new sentence.
Pub Date: 7/03/97