Judges to weigh restricting requests to reduce sentences

January 09, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A state court panel will consider today whether to end the nearly complete discretion judges have to shorten criminals' sentences - a restriction that prosecutors and victim advocates have sought for a decade over the objection of defense lawyers and some judges.

The judiciary's little-known Rules Committee will take up a proposal to place a five-year limit from the date of the original sentence on the time judges have to reduce sentences for violent crimes.

There is no time limit - a situation that opponents say is unique to Maryland - and criminals have returned to the courtroom more than a decade after being imprisoned to ask judges to shorten their sentences.

But some judges fear that if the judiciary does not rein itself in, lawmakers will impose even more drastic restrictions than the five-year limit being considered today.

"We have been standing with our fingers in the dike on this for a number of years," said Prince George's County Circuit Administrative Judge William D. Missouri, a Rules Committee member.

Prosecutors say the lack of a deadline leaves victims' families with no certainty that a sentence is final. John Shifflett, for example, was flabbergasted when nine years after his sister's killer was sentenced to 40 years in prison, he was asked if he wanted to attend and testify at a November hearing to shorten Gregory Byrd's sentence.

"It totally floored me, my whole family. I just think it is very cruel," said Shifflett, who saw Byrd repeatedly shoot Loretta Shifflett in the doorway of her family's Glen Burnie home, leaving her to die in her mother's arms. "They should not have the right, period. The sentence is the sentence. Then, the family, even if they don't agree with it, they can come to terms with it."

By the time Byrd asked for and received a hearing, the sentencing judge had retired. A new judge rejected Byrd's request.

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