RICHMOND, Va. - After 13 years of professing his innocence from prison, an ending finally seemed near last fall for Paul B. Luskin, the well-known Baltimore native convicted in a botched murder-for-hire plot against his estranged wife.
In a dramatic turnaround, Luskin abruptly admitted in court in October that he had helped plan a contract killing during his ugly, multimillion-dollar divorce in 1987. U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, weighing a sentence reduction, responded by cutting almost 10 years off Luskin's 35-year prison term.
But the conclusion might not be a tidy one for Luskin, 52, whose bizarre case began with three clumsy murder attempts in South Florida - including one in which the hired killer posed as a flower deliveryman - and has stretched on for years in appeals.
Federal prosecutors are taking the unusual step of challenging the reduced sentence. They argued yesterday to a three-judge appeals panel that while Motz might have been moved by Luskin's unexpected courtroom confession, he lacked jurisdiction to trim the sentence.
Defense attorneys say it was prosecutors who erred, by failing to appeal an earlier ruling by Motz that opened the door for Luskin to pursue a reduced sentence.
"I would submit that what happened here was the government simply didn't think about what the consequence was," Martin S. Himeless Jr., a Baltimore attorney representing Luskin, told the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here.
Yesterday's hourlong arguments were something of a rarity. Federal prosecutors typically do not challenge sentences, although there are some high-profile exceptions.
In 1995, prosecutors in Baltimore appealed the probation sentence handed down to Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano after his conviction in a campaign-contribution fraud scheme.
The government won that round. The appellate court ordered a new sentence for Bereano in 1998. At the second sentencing, Bereano was ordered to serve five months in a halfway house and five months on home detention.
The panel that heard Luskin's case yesterday, however, appeared skeptical.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein argued that there was no legal precedent for Motz to reduce Luskin's sentence last fall, more than a decade after the judge handed down the original term of 35 years, with no chance of parole for 15 years.
The current issue dates to 1999, when Motz issued an order clarifying that he intended Luskin to serve the non-parole portion of the sentence first. That order set in motion a series of legal maneuvers that led to yesterday's hearing.
Prosecutors did not oppose the judge's order about how the sentence should be served, and defense attorneys then seized on the opening. They argued to Motz that his order constituted imposition of an entirely new sentence, which they then successfully asked the judge to reduce.
In court yesterday, Appeals Judge Roger L. Gregory, sitting with Judges Karen J. Williams and Robert B. King, pointedly asked Rosenstein why prosecutors didn't file a challenge initially.
The government was in a difficult spot, Rosenstein said. It didn't oppose Motz's action clarifying the sentence, so it had no cause to appeal, he said.
If his sentence had not been changed, Luskin - once a millionaire businessman with a chain of appliance stores in South Florida (not connected to his uncle Jack Luskin's Baltimore stores) - would not have been eligible for parole until 2003.
Luskin became eligible for parole almost immediately after Motz's action in October, but the federal parole board denied his most recent request for release, Himeless said.
Under his new sentence, Luskin will automatically be released from prison in September 2002, roughly five years before he otherwise would have been freed.