Sentencing hearing could end legal limbo

Family of a slain Carroll County girl has waited nine years for justice

October 17, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN REPORTER

For years, Chuck Poehlman couldn't imagine anything less than an execution for the man who sexually assaulted and strangled his 17-year-old daughter after hiring her to baby-sit his nephew. Even after the convicted killer's death sentence was overturned, Poehlman was adamant that prosecutors ought to pursue the death penalty the second time around.

But the Carroll County man has relented, finally signing off this year on a plea agreement designed to end the years of roller coaster-like appeals that so many victims' families experience in capital cases while also ensuring that a murderer will spend most, and perhaps all, of his life behind bars.

John A. Miller IV is scheduled to be sentenced today in Baltimore County Circuit Court, where the maximum sentence that can be imposed is life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to the plea agreement that he accepted in August.

Poehlman, in an interview earlier this year, said he was "trying to adopt a little more distance and spirituality."

"It was out of my control that Shen got murdered, out of my control that John Miller got the death penalty, out of my control that the judges overturned it," he said then. "It's all out of my control."

Today's hearing, though, might not bring the finality that prosecutors and defense attorneys had hoped for when they crafted the plea agreement.

Miller, 35, has since filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea that he entered in August, arguing that his lawyers "tricked" him into accepting prosecutors' offer and asking the judge to appoint new counsel to represent him.

Defense attorney Jerri Peyton-Braden, a public defender who has represented Miller since 1998, declined to comment on the case or today's hearing.

Prosecutor Robin S. Coffin has worked on the case just as long.

"The Poehlmans would love it to end now," she said.

Shen Poehlman was killed July 28, 1998, not long after graduating from Liberty High School, where she was a tennis champion, the prom queen and an honors student. She had won a scholarship to study marine biology at Florida State University and was scheduled to leave for school just two weeks after her death.

On July 27, Shen spent the day at a Reisterstown pool where a friend of hers was working that summer as a lifeguard. The pool was associated with an apartment complex where Miller was living with his girlfriend, according to a transcript of the statement of facts that was read at the August plea hearing.

As Shen was leaving the pool that day, Miller approached her, asked if she did any baby-sitting and told her he had a nephew coming into town the next day. Shen agreed to watch the boy for five hours at $10 per hour.

Later that night, when Miller called to work out the details, he asked Shen to meet him the next morning at the pool and said he would then take her to the baby-sitting job.

"When Shen hung up the phone, she shared the information with her girlfriends. They were very concerned," Coffin, the prosecutor, said during the plea hearing. "They said to her, `You don't really know this man. He hasn't given you an address.'"

The girls agreed that Shen would page or call her two friends the next morning after she started the baby-sitting job to let them know that she was OK. But they didn't hear from her.

And when Shen failed to show up at work by 5 o'clock that evening, "their concern was enormous," Coffin said.

About 3:30 a.m. the next day, police found Shen's car parked about a mile from Miller's apartment. In the back seat, they found her strangled and covered with a blanket. She was not wearing shoes, according to the statement of facts.

A jury convicted Miller in February 2000 of first-degree murder, a first-degree sexual offense, robbery and false imprisonment and unanimously agreed that he be sentenced to death.

At that sentencing hearing, Chuck Poehlman declined in court to accept Miller's apology. He was equally steadfast four years later when Maryland's highest court overturned Miller's death sentence and granted him a new sentencing hearing.

"I want John Miller to know that I want him dead," Poehlman told The Sun at the time. "I want him off the Earth. I don't believe we should breathe the same air that he breathes."

But so much anger and waiting can weigh on a person.

"In John Miller's original case, it was a unanimous jury decision that he be executed. There was no hesitation of his guilt or innocence," Poehlman said in an interview in May, as his daughter's killer was considering the plea agreement offered by prosecutors with his consent.

"It's a legal process," he said, "but the legal process goes on and on and on."

Poehlman said capital punishment has become such a political issue in the United States that it "has nothing to do with justice."

"In some countries, they'd hand him over to the family. They'd hand him over to me," he said in the May interview. "Not that I want blood on my hands. Not that I want to take a life. But I was happy with the jury's decision."

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