Debating early release

Judge weighs pros and cons of freeing convicted molester

October 26, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Eight years ago, Judge Robert A. Silkworth gave Karl Johnson a break.

The Anne Arundel County judge had sentenced the Severna Park man, who had been convicted of battery and second-degree rape of two young girls who considered him an uncle, to serve a little more than half of a 15-year prison term but released him at age 21 after slightly more than two years behind bars.

Johnson couldn't stay out of trouble. He threatened his probation officer and was convicted of assaulting a Baltimore police officer in a nightclub and harassing his ex-fiancee. Silkworth sent him back to prison in 2003, imposing the balance of his sentence for the rape conviction.

Yesterday, Johnson, 29, was back in Silkworth's courtroom pleading for another early release after sending handwritten letters to the judge for months from his cell at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

Alternating between hope and rage, the dozens of letters offer a window into the tortured mind of a self-described bipolar sufferer who is convinced of his innocence and his oppression by the system, and has little to do but think about it.

In some of Johnson's pleas for release, he quotes Scripture and talks about his progress in prison job training and self-help programs but wonders how he can stay on the right path with the violence all around him.

"A more stable and disciplined environment would allow me to keep a focus on my immediate goals," he wrote, "goals that will allow the process of good within me, to truly reflect my honest and upright character."

In others, he rails against what he views as an uncaring system in which good behavior is not rewarded. At one point, he says he might be on the verge of violence himself.

"For each new day, this past two months, I have been thinking on revenge!" he wrote in a letter dated Aug. 9. "I mean, you ... people don't care about me anyway. What would it matter that I've tried to do the right thing? ... Maybe I stab the next [correctional officer] that has called me stupid ... or maybe beat the hell out of a few of them, as I continue to observe them do daily!"

Silkworth yesterday said he would take some time before making a decision on Johnson's case. Prosecutors warned that Johnson was dangerous and shouldn't be considered for release until his sentence expires in 2009.

"The court released him several times. The court made a mistake, and others have had to pay for that mistake," said Assistant State's Attorney Warren W. Davis III, who said Johnson had been disruptive at Roxbury. "There's not a single piece of objective material that would support release."

In many ways, Johnson's situation highlights some of the challenges faced by the judicial system regarding the need to balance rehabilitation and punishment, along with the underlying concerns for public safety.

"If we let him out at end of 2007 or he comes home in 2009, are we really any safer? How is that [extended stay] going to shape who he becomes and how he lives his life?" said Kimberly Haven, executive director of Justice Maryland, an advocacy group for inmates. "How much more can this gentleman do, given that there are limited opportunities behind the walls to set him up to be successful?"

Johnson was 19 in 1997 when a jury found him guilty of battery and second-degree rape. He had been accused of abusing the daughters of his half-sister, one of whom contracted a sexually transmitted disease from the encounter, according to court records. Throughout the trial, Johnson maintained his innocence.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with seven years suspended. On Aug. 25, 1999, Silkworth suspended the balance of his sentence and ordered him to serve 18 months of house arrest.

Johnson got into trouble again in 2001, when his probation officer said he had threatened another officer and refused to comply with the terms of his probation.

The officer didn't mince words in a report to the judge, writing, "Mr. Johnson has no respect for the criminal justice system and is not a candidate for probation." But Johnson's supervisors at an IHOP restaurant also wrote to Silkworth, saying that Johnson was a standout employee and team player.

Silkworth gave Johnson another chance. He told him to remain on probation, serve 20 hours of community service, attend anger-management counseling and treat his probation agents with respect.

When Johnson was arrested in two violent incidents in 2003, the probation agent wrote that Johnson was "out of control" and "a real danger to the public."

This time, Silkworth sent him back to prison to serve the rest of the sentence for battery and second-degree rape.

Since then, Johnson has become what his public defender, Michele Cinque, called a "prolific writer" who in his letters to Silkworth said that he had completed nonviolent conflict-resolution courses and has been accepted into an apprenticeship program to receive his Bachelor of Science degree.

The gamut of emotions displayed in the letters, however, prompted prosecutors to suggest that Johnson remains unstable. Cinque said the anger has been a byproduct of his incarceration.

Silkworth, who was criticized last year for allowing a Severna Park man accused of sexually abusing his daughter to return home while he awaited trial, didn't indicate which way he was leaning with Johnson this time. He said only that he was concerned about his continuing temper.

"You're telling me," he said to Davis, the prosecutor, "that for the extent of the time you have the ability to, that we should lock him up and throw away the key. What happens to this anger? I'm saying for the public, for me, what happens to this anger [when he is released] in 2009?"

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