More prison time possible for inmate due release Suspension of sentence may not cover all charges

December 12, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Only days after he was told he would be free by Christmas, a man who came of age in prison has found out he may be stuck there for another six months.

James McKeldin Simms has spent 30 years behind bars, since he was 16, for killing a clerk at a general store in his hometown in Calvert County. He learned last week that three judges decided to suspend his life sentence because of a violation of his rights years ago.

But his lawyer and corrections officials have since discovered the order did not apply to his six-month sentence on an escape charge.

Now, the governor must decide whether to let Simms out for a Christmas Eve homecoming to tiny Sunderland. His lawyer, Ralph S. Tyler, has petitioned Gov. Parris N. Glendening to spare Simms the additional time.

"I believe that our application will get serious and fair consideration," said Tyler, who filed papers Tuesday asking that the sentence be commuted.

But Glendening may take a hard line because he opposes parole for virtually all inmates serving life sentences for rape and murder. Though the governor declined to comment on the Simms' petition until he reviews it, his spokesman, Ray Feldmann, said, "He believes anyone sentenced to life in prison for a violent crime should serve their full sentence."

Simms won his release because his sentence was never reviewed by a three-judge panel. Such hearings usually take place 30 days after sentencing, but Simms' lawyer at the time did not inform him of his right to a review. Three judges in Howard County reviewed his case recently and concluded that he already had served more time than is typical for life inmates.

"While he would otherwise be eligible for parole at this time, the governor's policy of not approving parole for any life imprisonment inmates has left him in a state of limbo," the judges wrote in ordering that he be released on Dec. 24. The order requires supervised probation for five years.

The review took place in Howard County because Simms was tried there after the trial was moved from Calvert County. The first jury could not reach a verdict; a second convicted him in June 1969 of killing Doris Mae Gibson, 42, a grocery store clerk.

The additional sentence stems from an escape in 1980, when Simms was on a work detail. He turned himself in and, by all accounts, has been a model prisoner since then.

Simms has steadfastly maintained his innocence. In 1983, more than 130 supporters signed a petition pleading for his release.

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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