Sentencing postponed for killer of teenage girl

Once on death row, he seeks to reverse guilty plea

October 18, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,SUN REPORTER

Sentencing for a convicted killer who was once on death row was postponed yesterday after the man said that his lawyers had coerced him to plead guilty in a prior plea agreement.

John A. Miller IV, 35, was allowed to proceed with a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, effectively firing the public defenders who have represented him.

Relatives of Shen Poehlman, the 17-year-old girl whom Miller was convicted of killing nearly a decade ago, were visibly upset when they learned that the sentencing process would be prolonged. One man walked out of the courtroom saying, "I can't believe that he gets to decide."

The family declined to comment to reporters yesterday.

"This is a family that's been at it for almost 10 years now," said Assistant State's Attorney Robin Coffin. "Every time they walk into a courtroom, it brings it back fresh alive and takes the life out of them."

The family had consented to an agreement that would have allowed Miller to avoid the death penalty. Yesterday, Coffin said prosecutors could eventually decide to seek the death penalty again.

Shen, an honor student, tennis champion and prom queen, was killed July 28, 1998, a couple of weeks before she was to have left to begin classes at Florida State University.

According to testimony, Miller approached Shen at a swimming pool and asked her to baby-sit his nephew. When she arrived at his apartment, he sexually assaulted her and strangled her with a belt, according to testimony.

In 2000, a jury convicted Miller of first-degree murder, a first-degree sexual offense, robbery and false imprisonment, and unanimously decided that he should be sentenced to death. Four years later, the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned the death sentence and granted Miller a new sentencing hearing.

In August, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Lawrence Daniels accepted a plea agreement in which he granted Miller a new trial on the first-degree-murder charge. Miller pleaded guilty to that charge, and prosecutors withdrew the motion to seek the death penalty. Under the agreement, Miller would have had limited rights to appeal the murder conviction.

Miller filed a motion to withdraw his plea, charging that his lawyers had "tricked" him into accepting the agreement.

Yesterday, the judge told Miller that proceeding with the motion to withdraw his plea means that defense attorneys Jerri Peyton-Braden and Hossein R. Parvizian would not be able to represent him at the hearing because it is likely that they would be asked to testify. Miller would have to represent himself, hire a private attorney or hope that one volunteers to help him, Daniels said.

Peyton-Braden and Parvizian did not return calls seeking comment.

After the hearing, a man who identified himself as Miller's father said, "I have no idea what he's thinking. I won't find out until I visit him." He declined to comment further.

The judge also warned Miller that he could be charged with perjury because he testified under oath in August that he had entered into the plea agreement under his own volition.

A scheduling conference for the motion hearing was set for Jan. 7.

If the judge decides to accept Miller's motion to withdraw the guilty plea, then "we're in exactly the same position that we were in before the plea," Coffin said.

The family could ask prosecutors to seek the death penalty again, she said.

"Even today there were discussions with the family about death or no death," she said. "It's a very unique situation they're in. A lot of people think death is still the appropriate sentence, but [the family members] also need it to end."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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