30 years in prison ruled enough Some praise, others condemn release in Calvert murder

December 06, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

He was sent to prison when he was just old enough to get a driver's license. Now, 30 years later, James McKeldin Simms will return to his Calvert County town on Christmas Eve -- an unexpected present for his friends and family, but bitterness to the family of the victim.

The life sentence given to Simms for killing Doris Mae Gibson in 1967 while she tended the Robert King Grocery Store in Sunderland was suspended by a panel of three Howard County judges this week.

"I am elated," said Gladys Evans, a neighbor and close friend of the Simms family and one of many who have steadfastly maintained Simms' innocence. "This is has been a constant prayer of mine that he will finally be able to come home.

"There are many people here who have actually killed, and they have not served as many years in jail as he did. They were paroled many years ago," Evans said.

But for some in Sunderland, Simms' impending arrival is not welcome news.

"Nobody's thrilled that somebody does something like that and gets out, even after 30 years," said Joyce Gibson, who married Joseph Gibson, the man widowed by Simms. "But that's the law."

Others said his release is a nightmare come true. Refusing to be identified, one expressed fear at his return.

Simms will be on supervised probation for five years after his release.

His release does seem to conflict with Gov. Parris N. Glendening's policy that denies parole for criminals sentenced to life in prison.

The case slips between legal cracks -- Simms is not being paroled, his sentence is suspended.

Glendening spokesman Ray Feldmann said the governor did not see the decision as circumventing his policy. This case presented a unique situation, he said.

"Clearly the judges had the discretion to make this decision," Feldmann said. "The governor still strongly believes that violent criminals who receive life sentences should serve life sentences."

The governor's policy effectively barred Simms from a parole hearing. His case went before the judges only because of a ruling this year that he never knew of his right to have his sentence reviewed by a three-judge panel.

Generally such hearings take place 30 days after sentencing. Instead, it was almost 30 years later that a panel of judges met in August to review the sentence.

Simms, 16 at the time, was convicted of shooting Gibson, 42, three times while she tended store one December afternoon in 1967. Fifty-one dollars was missing. According to testimony in the case, Simms purchased .22-caliber shells from the store that day and returned later to buy soft drinks for two friends.

The friends testified that Simms told them he shot Gibson.

From the beginning, Simms has denied shooting Gibson.

The first jury that heard the case could not reach a verdict. The second convicted him in 1969, and the judge sentenced him to life in prison.

Because the original trials were held in Howard County after a change of venue, the August hearing was held before three Howard County judges. Circuit Judge James B. Dudley, who chaired the panel, said the issue was whether the life sentence imposed 28 years ago was appropriate.

Over the decades, Simms had appeals of his case, his sentence and the length of his prison term denied. Friends and family members submitted a 130-name petition in 1983 asking that he be released.

A chance of parole was wiped out about 15 years ago because Simms escaped from a work-release detail, later turning himself in, Dudley said. When he was due for a parole hearing again, the governor's no-parole policy was in place.

Though the hearing in August was supposed to evaluate whether the sentence was appropriate, it turned into more of a parole hearing, the prosecutor from Calvert County said.

Evidence of Simms' record in jail -- flawless except for the escape -- was presented.

Simms "is mindful of the fact that this panel is not the parole board," wrote his attorney, Ralph S. Tyler. "Nevertheless, candor compels recognition of the fact that but for a change in state policy regarding parole, Simms likely would have been released by now."

Added Tyler: "We had evidence that showed this man had, in fact, served far more time than people similarly situated."

And now, 30 years after going to prison, Simms will be going home.

"It gives him the opportunity to start a new life, and he is looking forward to doing that," Tyler said.

Pub Date: 12/06/97

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