Unwavering about death penalty

Father: Court ruling aside, Chuck Poehlman wants his daughter's killer to be executed.

February 21, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Once again, the murderer was in the spotlight.

The prosecutors and victims' advocates had warned Chuck Poehlman that this would happen, that some days it would seem as if his teen-age daughter had been forgotten, that people cared only about her killer.

He knew that other victims' families, faced with a court ruling that overturned a death sentence, had asked prosecutors to avoid another capital trial and instead agree to a plea. And after he learned Thursday that the Maryland Court of Appeals had set aside the death sentence for the killer of 17-year-old Shen Poehlman, he knew people might wonder whether he would do the same.

But Chuck Poehlman is unwavering. "We've been through the absolute worst," he said yesterday. "This little blip, this little speed bump that we're experiencing now, it is of consequence, but it's not significant. It's a slight aggravation."

Poehlman, 52, of Finksburg, is committed to life - to his own, to his family's, to Shen's. He remarried two years ago, and delights in raising his wife's 5-year-old boy. He enjoys the company of his older son, is thrilled by his stepdaughter's baby. And he remembers.

"In memory of my daughter who personified joy, happiness, and respect for all things living, I cannot allow myself to succumb to the burning anger and hatred that is raging within me," he wrote on a memorial Web site for his daughter. "Instead, in spite of how I feel, I must celebrate a life that was truly a special one that touched many people in special ways."

But Poehlman is also dedicated to death. The 31-year-old man he calls a monster, the one who took his Shen, must be executed, he said.

He has always pushed for this. When other members of Shen's family, including her mother, were willing to accept a plea agreement that could have led to a sentence of life without parole, Poehlman refused to accept anything less than death.

Shen's mother could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"I want John Miller to know that I want him dead," Poehlman said. "I want him off the earth. I don't believe we should breathe the same air that he breathes."

For Poehlman, this quest toward life and death is not inconsistent. And this week's Court of Appeals ruling is just another obstacle in his struggle for both.

In that 131-page order, which upheld John A. Miller IV's murder conviction in the 1998 killing, the judges had varying reasons for overturning the death sentence.

Some based the decision on their opposition to a part of Maryland death penalty law. Others had problems with a witness, who defense attorneys say lied about whether he had a deal with prosecutors.

For Miller's family in Rochester, N.Y., the decision was an "enormous relief," said Jerri Peyton-Braden, his attorney.

The decision also encouraged death penalty opponents, because it suggests that some judges will continue to take a hard anti-capital punishment line in future cases.

Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the ruling showed that some judges are committed to the idea that Maryland's law is flawed. A jury should make sure the reasons for sending defendants to death outweigh reasons to spare their lives by a standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, not by a preponderance of evidence, these judges believe.

"Those judges are going to adhere to that idea that the death penalty is unconstitutional," Millemann said.

That type of ruling frustrates prosecutors, who see death penalty law in Maryland as a constantly shifting target.

Baltimore County Deputy State's Attorney Stephen Bailey said in an interview last month that prosecutors and victims understand that the appeals process is part of the system.

"I just think it's run amuck when it comes to death penalty cases," he said.

But to Poehlman, it is just one small battle in what has been a constant struggle since Shen was killed. He has told prosecutors that he wants to pursue a death sentence, no matter what happens with appeals.

"Nobody can understand unless it's happened to them," Poehlman said.

Although he and his family love and laugh and play, there is never a time he doesn't miss Shen, he said. For nearly six years, all joy has been laced with sorrow.

"If I get too happy, I feel like `Boom, something is going to happen,'" he said. "It is a cloud that follows me, but I try not to let it rule my life."

More than the details of her death, he would like people to remember the brown-haired girl who loved to swim with dolphins, the teen-ager who said "I love you" to her friends.

"The girl was prom queen, honor student, tennis star, helper of old people - she was a great kid," Poehlman said.

In the summer of 1998, she had just graduated with honors from Liberty High School in Carroll County and was about to enter Florida State University to study marine biology.

She, her brother and her father had tickets to fly down to the college, and she had begun packing the suitcases she had received for graduation.

But there are other memories that can't be avoided.

Shen Poehlman met John Miller on July 27, 1998, at a swimming pool in Reisterstown where one of her girlfriends worked. He asked her to baby-sit for him the next morning, and she agreed.

When she went to his apartment, he sexually assaulted her and strangled her with a belt, trial testimony showed. The next day, police found her body in her car, parked a short distance from Miller's apartment. Two years later, a jury convicted Miller of murder and sexual assault, and sentenced him to death.

"I want to have dreams; I want to have hopes," Poehlman said. "I think I know that, eventually, I'll be with Shen."

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