The brutal carjacking death of Pam Basu returned to Howard County Circuit Court yesterday as her husband and sister confronted a convicted killer asking for a reduced sentence.
"My life will never be the same," said Columbia resident Steve Basu, who was left to raise the daughter his wife was trying to save when she was dragged to her death in 1992. "The pictures, the memories, the videos, that's all we have of Pam. She was in the prime of her life. Except for that person sitting here and his accomplice, we would have a real life together."
Judge Dennis M. Sweeney denied the request of Bernard Eric Miller, 22, for a reduction of his sentence of life plus 10 years, saying Miller "was fully involved in the crimes that he" and Rodney Eugene Solomon "jointly committed." Miller sought a reduction to 15 years; Solomon is serving a sentence of life without parole.
Basu's death stirred national interest and prompted federal anti-carjacking legislation.
Basu, 34, a scientist at W. R. Grace & Co., was killed when she was dragged nearly two miles from her Savage home, entangled in a seat belt, as Miller and Solomon drove away in her BMW with her 22-month-old daughter, Sarina, in the back seat.
Miller's attorney, Laurack D. Bray, maintains his client is innocent of the murder charge. Miller also was convicted in 1993 of kidnapping, attempted theft, battery and assault with intent to rob.
"There was no evidence that Bernard Miller attempted to rob or intended to rob Pam Basu," Bray said. "He happened to be in the car with Mr. Solomon. Bernard Miller didn't commit these acts. He's not that kind of person."
Wearing a striped shirt and jeans, Miller sat expressionless as Basu and his sister-in-law Nita Seelinger of Chester Springs, Pa., spoke before a handful of lawyers and spectators. He kept his eyes focused on the floor.
He told the judge: "I did not murder or try to rob Mrs. Basu; however, I will accept some responsibility for her death."
Basu, an engineering consultant, was calm and composed when he took the stand. But at times, he seemed to be searching for words to describe his emotions and asked the court to pardon his occasional pauses as he cried.
"It is a feeling that is so painful I try to hold it back," he said. "I hope you would hold [Miller] responsible for all this. He had the opportunity to save Pam's life. He didn't."
It was the first time Basu had been in the courthouse in five years, since Sweeney sentenced Miller. He recounted in the trial how he searched for his wife Sept. 8, 1992, when she failed to meet him at their daughter's pre-school.
He told the jury that it was not until he found several police cars stopped near their home, then in Savage, that he realized something had happened to her. On his drive home from the school, he said, he noticed a woman's white shoe lying in the intersection of Horsham Drive and Knights Bridge Road, about one block from their house. It was his wife's shoe.
That morning, Steve Basu had videotaped his wife getting their daughter ready for her first day of preschool. In the video, he watches as his wife leads Sarina down a walkway to the car. Solomon and Miller are seen walking down the street toward the house in the background.
Basu then left home, expecting to join his wife and daughter a few minutes later at the school. But a block from her home, Solomon and Miller confronted Pam Basu in her car while it was stopped, forcing her out of the driver's seat and speeding off as she became entangled in the seat belt trying to reach her child in the back seat. Evidence showed that the killers drove into a barbed-wire fence trying to dislodge Basu.
Yesterday, before the hearing, Steve Basu took a few moments by himself at the end of a hallway to reflect on what he would say. He occasionally looked out the window and hung his head down. He jotted down notes, but didn't use them as he spoke.
'I can never be her mother'
He told the judge the couple's daughter wonders why other mothers are at Girl Scout meetings and hers is not. "She asks me why doesn't anybody want to stay with her as a mother," Basu said, holding back tears. "I try to be the best father I can be, but I know I can never be her mother."
The possibility that Miller could be paroled in nine years came as a chilling reminder to the Basu family.
Pam Basu's sister, Seelinger, told the judge yesterday: "Sept. 8, 1992, changed our lives. It has left a hole in the lives of our entire family. It is painful to be going through this."
Seelinger told the judge her niece is insecure because she craves her mother. "She is a happy, 8-year-old girl who has a hole that can never be filled." She described how her father, who died a few months ago, lived the last five years as a "broken man." She said her mother is miserable.
"Even the happiest events are overshadowed by the loss of Pam. Every day, I bear the burden of my parents' grief. I lost my best friend that day. I lost my sister."