Balto. County killer asks for reduced prison term

Whittlesey bases request on robbery, theft sentences

August 12, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Convicted murderer Michael Whittlesey, who spent more than two years on death row for the 1982 killing of a Baltimore County teenager before the sentence was voided in favor of a life prison term, was back in court yesterday to ask that his punishment be further reduced.

His attorney argued during a hearing in Baltimore County Circuit Court that a judge erred in 1984 in sentencing Whittlesey to consecutive prison terms of 10 years and 15 years for robbery and theft convictions stemming from the disappearance of 17-year-old Jamie Griffin.

Donald E. Zaremba, Baltimore County's deputy public defender, asked a judge yesterday to take 15 years off Whittlesey's prison term, offering a technical legal argument that the robbery and theft convictions should have been merged into one count for the purposes of sentencing.

After Griffin's remains were found in 1990 in a shallow grave in Gunpowder Falls State Park, Whittlesey was convicted of murder and sentenced to die. But in 1997, after Maryland's highest court voided Whittlesey's death sentence, then-Baltimore County Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. - now the county executive - rejected a renewed plea for the death penalty and sentenced Whittlesey to life in prison.

Yesterday, the victim's relatives said that Whittlesey, now 40, deserves no more breaks.

"He's got a lot of nerve to come back again," Charles Griffin, one of Jamie Griffin's uncles, said in an interview at the courthouse after yesterday's hearing. "He got his life back when Jim Smith took him off death row, and he's still not satisfied. I just can't believe it after all that."

During yesterday's hearing, prosecutor John Cox said the robbery and theft sentences should stand because the court determined in 1984 that the robbery ended with Griffin's murder and that Whittlesey's subsequent theft of the Griffin family car was a separate crime warranting its own sentence.

Judge Vicki Ballou-Watts said she will consider the attorneys' arguments and issue a written decision.

The hearing was the latest development in a case that began April 2, 1982, the day Griffin was last seen alive with Whittlesey, a former classmate from Dulaney High School.

Unable to locate the body of the young pianist, authorities initially charged Whittlesey only with robbing Griffin of his wallet and car keys, and stealing the car. He was convicted and sentenced to a total of 25 years.

For eight years, Griffin's body remained undetected while his photograph - a senior class portrait of a bow-tied, baby-faced youngster - was printed on posters, milk cartons and grocery bags.

The prosecution's victory in winning a capital murder conviction in 1993 against Whittlesey was short-lived.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in 1995 that Whittlesey should have been allowed at his sentencing hearing to present testimony about growing up in an abusive family, and it ordered a new hearing. When Smith sent Whittlesey to prison for a life term, a sentence of life without parole was not an option because such a sentence did not exist in 1982 when Griffin was killed.

As she has done for every court or parole hearing involving her son's killer, Lou Ellen Griffin brought to the Towson courthouse yesterday a thick purple folder that she clutched to her chest. It holds the reward flier that was posted when her son disappeared, tributes read at annual scholarship ceremonies held in his memory, petitions signed by more than 6,000 people who oppose Whittlesey's ever being paroled and pages of letters to the state parole board from friends, relatives and even Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.

Griffin opposes Whittlesey's request for a shorter prison term and said she attended yesterday's hearing in an effort to keep alive her son's spirit and memory.

"He's a danger to anyone in society if he gets loose," Griffin, 71, said of Whittlesey. "He took my only child away."

It's unclear what, if any, effect a reduction in Whittlesey's sentence would have. Inmates sentenced to life in prison become eligible for parole after 15 years, minus any credit for good behavior or work service, said Tom Pennewell, a state parole hearings administrator.

Whittlesey's first parole hearing on the life sentence was held Aug. 8 last year. With Lou Ellen Griffin present, the parole commissioners denied Whittlesey's request and scheduled him for a rehearing in August 2013, Pennewell said.

If Judge Ballou-Watts grants Whittlesey's request to shorten his robbery and theft sentences, Pennewell said, parole commissioners would have to decide whether to change the date of Whittlesey's next parole hearing.

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