Man wins reprieve from death sentence

Appeals court judges divided on case involving killing of 17-year-old girl

February 20, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned yesterday the death sentence of the Baltimore County man convicted in 2000 of killing 17-year-old honor student Shen D. Poehlman.

In an unusually complex decision, the court gave various reasons for moving John A. Miller IV off death row. Some judges said they agreed with a legal argument that challenges an aspect of Maryland's death penalty law, while a second group pointed to evidence that a state witness may have lied about a deal with prosecutors.

"Because of an unusual divergence of views among the members of the Court, there is in this case no majority opinion on all of the issues," Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote in a 131-page order.

Prosecutors said they needed to study the opinion further before deciding on a next step. They may be able to ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision, Assistant State's Attorney Mickey Norman said.

"I've read it once, I need to re-read it to make sure that I have a clear understanding of what these seven judges are saying," he said.

If the opinion stands, prosecutors will have to decide whether to try to send Miller back to death row. That process could be as involved as a new trial, because the first step for prosecutors in a death penalty sentencing hearing is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was directly responsible for the killing.

In 2000, a jury sentenced Miller to death for murdering Poehlman, a tennis star at Carroll County's Liberty High School.

According to court testimony, Miller had met Poehlman at a Reisterstown swimming pool in July 1998 and lured her to his apartment with the promise of a baby-sitting job.

When she went to his home the next day, prosecutors said, Miller sexually assaulted the teen-ager and strangled her with a belt. Detectives found Poehlman's body in her car at a nearby apartment complex.

Brian Amberman, who lived near Poehlman in Eldersburg, said he remembers clearly the day police found the girl. The chilling news traveled quickly through the neighborhood.

"It's very disappointing," he said of the Court of Appeals ruling. "I wouldn't know how to add words to that. I'm sure her family is crushed."

Attempts to reach Poehlman's family last night were unsuccessful.

Miller's attorney, Jerri Peyton-Braden, said she had not yet spoken to her client about the ruling, but said she had talked with his parents.

"They are very pleased and enormously relieved," she said.

Peyton-Braden said she wished the judges had reversed Miller's conviction altogether, as three of the seven judges advocated.

In an unusual move for the Maryland Court of Appeals, the judges gave different reasons for reversing Miller's sentence.

Three judges said they disagreed with Maryland's law governing how juries decide whether to impose a death sentence.

In order to sentence someone to death, juries must decide that the aggravating factors of the crime outweigh by a preponderance of the evidence any mitigating factors - those aspects of a defendant's life that urge against the death penalty.

The three judges said that the legal standard for this step should be beyond a reasonable doubt, not a preponderance of the evidence, and that Miller should receive a new sentencing hearing.

Two of those judges, along with a fourth judge, believed that Miller should get a new trial because, they determined, a state witness may have lied about whether he had a deal with prosecutors.

One of the witnesses in Miller's case was an inmate at the county jail named Clarence Bobbitt, whom Miller met while awaiting trial.

Bobbitt testified that Miller had told him that his sexual activity with Poehlman was not consensual, as Miller's defense attorneys contended. The jury's finding that Miller had sexually assaulted the girl was the only aggravating circumstance to support a death sentence, according to court records.

During Miller's trial, Bobbitt denied that prosecutors had promised him any leniency in his own criminal matters in return for the testimony, according to the opinion. But two years later, Peyton-Braden said, defense attorneys found evidence that they said indicated that Bobbitt had an agreement with prosecutors.

Prosecutors deny that they made any deal with Bobbitt, according to court papers.

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