Court rules on rights of victims

Remedy sought for those not told about appeal

May 08, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun Reporter

Tracy L. Palmer was furious when she learned that a Prince George's County judge had decided to reduce her abuser's prison sentence, but attorneys told her it was too late to do anything about it.

She fought on anyway, arguing that since she did not receive notification of her ex-boyfriend's attempt to reduce his sentence as required by law, she was entitled to a new hearing and the chance to object. The circuit judge agreed, reversed himself and sent the man, Sharden B. Hoile, back to prison.

But the state's highest court decided yesterday that Palmer was too late. The Court of Appeals ruled that while Maryland law may require notification, it doesn't give the victim standing to demand a new hearing if that notice isn't received.

"The victim's rights provisions in Maryland law still lack adult teeth," Court of Appeals Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr., wrote.

Two state senators said yesterday that the court's ruling violated the "spirit" of the law and said they would consider legislation next year that would give victims "a remedy" when they're not notified that a defendant is appealing a conviction or trying to get his or her sentenced reduced.

"It's absurd that a victim has a right to be notified of a hearing and the right to come, but if nobody tells her about it, well, then she never gets to have any input," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee. "There's an old homily that says there's no right without a remedy, but in this case, the court is saying there is in fact a right without a remedy."

After Hoile's sentence was reduced without Palmer's knowledge, her attorney, Russell P. Butler, argued that she deserved the do-over Prince George's County Circuit Judge Thomas P. Smith gave her.

The "ruling is very frustrating," said Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center. "The court acknowledged her rights were violated but then found no remedy. It makes victims' rights meaningless unless the General Assembly acts."

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said legislation is needed to "fix" the "hole" but that the ruling should give prosecutors a "wake-up call."

Palmer said yesterday that Prince George's County state's attorney's office erroneously sent the notices to an address she lived at in 1997, instead of her mother's address, which she had furnished to the court. The Court of Appeals wrote that it was unclear whether the letters were mailed at all.

"Assuming she was not notified, the failure really rests on the assistant state's attorney or the trial court," said Assistant Public Defender Brian L. Zavin, who represented Hoile. "My client certainly wasn't responsible for notifying her, and he didn't do anything to exclude her from the proceeding."

But Palmer, 41, said yesterday that Hoile, 45, still scares her and that she should be guaranteed a role in any proceedings to reduce his sentence.

"I am afraid as I will be once again entering into the unknown, not knowing what he is going to do and when he is going to do it," she wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "At his parole hearing two years ago, he was still blaming me for his incarceration, and that is very scary for me."

Hoile pleaded guilty in 1997 to choking Palmer and threatening her with a knife. Smith sentenced Hoile to a suspended 15-year prison sentence and put him on probation, which he violated after contacting Palmer and being convicted of a third-degree burglary of her Calvert County home.

Smith then imposed the entire 15-year sentence. About mid-way through it, Hoile asked Smith to reduce the sentence.

Without Palmer's knowledge, Smith put Hoile on probation. At about this time, Palmer said in an interview yesterday, she thought she saw him on the street and panicked. She began conducting research on his whereabouts and found out that he was in a pre-release program and about to be a free man.

"Who is to be held accountable if a victim's rights are violated?" Palmer wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "It should be the person who caused the person to become a victim in the first place ... The General Assembly needs to make more defined laws that truly protect the victims and not allow the perpetrators to squeak through the system on technicalities."

The only consolation the court provided Palmer was to order Prince George's County to pay her legal bills. She shouldn't be "burdened with the costs in this appeal, where her rights were violated through no fault of her own," Harrell wrote.

Zavin said that under the appellate ruling, Smith should free Hoile soon and put him on probation.

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