CUMBERLAND -- John A. Miller IV, described by prosecutors as a "highly motivated predator" who lured a Carroll County girl to her death, was convicted yesterday of murder and sexual assault, setting the stage for a death penalty hearing next week.
Miller, 27, was found guilty of first-degree murder, a first-degree sexual offense, robbery and false imprisonment in the strangling of 17-year-old Shen D. Poehlman in Reisterstown in July 1998.
The defense had conceded that Miller killed the girl but had fought the sexual-assault and robbery allegations, knowing that prosecutors needed those convictions to pursue the death penalty.
The verdict, reached by the jury after about an hour and 45 minutes of deliberations, set off an emotional scene among the girl's friends and relatives. A gasp was heard when the guilty verdict was read on the sex-offense count. Uldine Poehlman, the girl's grandmother, wept and later said, "Thank God. Justice."
The girl's father, Charles Poehlman, said, "Righteous decision. It's the right thing."
Miller, an unemployed store clerk, nodded slightly as Allegany County Circuit Judge Gary G. Leasure read the jury's guilty finding for first-degree murder. He hung his head when the judge said he was guilty of the sex offense. Later, he seemed to be holding back tears.
Jerri A. Peyton-Braden, an assistant public defender who represented Miller, said, "This is all so hideously sad." She said her client will probably announce at a hearing today whether he wants to be sentenced by the jury or the judge. She expects Miller to allow the jury to decide his fate at a hearing scheduled to begin Monday in Cumberland.
The trial was moved to Allegany County after extensive publicity about the case.
According to testimony, Miller met Poehlman at a swimming pool in Reisterstown on July 27, 1998, and offered her work as a baby-sitter, even though his children were in the Rochester, N.Y., area with his ex-wife. Despite the misgivings of her friends, Poehlman went to Miller's apartment the next day.
Miller did not testify, but he gave several accounts of the events of that day to friends and to police. He initially told detectives that he was playing golf the day the girl disappeared. Later, he told investigators that she had agreed to wear sexual "restraints" and had allowed him to perform a sex act on her. He said he panicked at the thought that his live-in girlfriend would find out and choked the girl with a belt because he "had to get rid of her."
He told police he later had second thoughts about killing the girl and that she was still alive when he left her in her car, a claim contradicted by a medical examiner's findings.
Prosecutor Mickey J. Norman told the jury that Miller was not to be believed. He mocked the defense argument that Shen Poehlman's attire -- shorts, no underwear, a pink satin bra and a shirt that exposed her midriff -- suggested that she might have had something other than baby-sitting in mind when she went to the apartment.
Poehlman was a high school tennis champion and honors student who had won a scholarship to Florida State University, where she planned to study marine biology.
Her friends testified that she had a steady boyfriend at the time of her death and that her body piercings and habit of not wearing underwear were not unusual for teen-agers.
"The defense theory of the case is that you are supposed to magically glean the truth from this liar, and they want you to believe that on July 28, 1998, this academic, fastidious student decided to take a walk on the wild side," Norman told the jury during closing arguments.
"The defendant began stalking his prey on July the 27th, 1998. This defendant began formulating his plan to lure someone to his apartment for his own personal entertainment and thereafter dispose of her."
He asked whether it was believable that the girl, presumably alarmed when she arrived for a baby-sitting job and saw no children, would then agree to wear restraints and participate in a sex act with a stranger.
During the trial, a man who said he was a former cellmate of Miller at the Baltimore County Detention Center, testified that Miller said he sexually assaulted the girl and robbed her of money from her purse.
During closing arguments yesterday, Jerome M. Levine, another lawyer representing Miller, said the inmate fabricated his testimony in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.
Norman said the inmate's story rang true because he quoted Miller as describing the restraints using the same term Miller used in statements to police.
Robin S. Coffin, another prosecutor in the case, said Miller nearly got away with his crime but that Poehlman's friends, suspicious of him, quickly alerted police when she disappeared.
"Those two girls put it together and brought him down," Coffin said.
"I hope he gets what he deserves," said one of them, Lauren Tupis, 18. "Shen's here with us. That's why the verdict is the way it is."
Poehlman's mother, Janice Poehlman, sobbed and embraced her 17-year-old son and other family members after the verdict was announced.
"I'm just glad this part is over," she said. "The hardest part is, I can't have her back. I just want her back."