A killer will spend his life in prison

a family might finally find peace

November 18, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

It has been a decade since Chuck Poehlman unzipped the body bag to see the thick purple bruise around his daughter's neck and the shoe imprint left on her chest by the man who stood on top of her as he strangled the life out of her with a belt.

Family members attended countless court hearings as John A. Miller IV was tried, convicted of killing 17-year-old Shen Poehlman and sentenced to death.

There have been more court dates since that sentence was overturned and Miller agreed to plead guilty if prosecutors dropped their pursuit of a second death sentence, only to have him spend the past 15 months trying to undo that agreement.

But yesterday, the Poehlman family attended what they hope will be their last sentencing hearing. A Baltimore County judge denied Miller's latest request for a new trial and sentenced him to life in prison without possibility of parole.

"I've been through this for 10 years, hearing about all the rights he has," Chuck Poehlman told the judge in remarks so wrought with emotion that attorneys, court personnel and even the defendant's mother choked up or wept as he spoke. "I'm tired of seeing him. I'm tired of hearing about his rights."

Although Miller's defense attorney asked the judge to preserve some hope - however dim and distant - of release for Miller, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Lawrence R. Daniels said the facts of the case would not permit him to do so.

"The crime that was committed was vicious, cruel, heartless, cold. The adjectives I could string together to describe Shen Poehlman's death could not describe the horror and the terror that this young woman felt in the final moments of her life," he said. "I look to the future and consider the possibility of John Miller walking among us as a free man and I have to say I am totally revulsed by that possibility."

Miller, 36, who suffers from bipolar disorder and has spent the years since being moved off death row in solitary confinement at Supermax, had no visible reaction to the new sentence. And when given a chance to address the judge, Miller declined. Instead, his lawyer read a transcript of the defendant's apology and remarks from 2000 when he asked jurors to spare his life at his first sentencing hearing.

The resolution of the case leaves Miller with few appeal options and the Poehlman family - for the first time in a long while - without a court date on their calendars.

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 honor student. She had won academic and athletic scholarships to study marine biology at Florida State University and was scheduled to leave for school just two weeks after her death.

In remarks offered to the judge yesterday, her father, mother and younger brother described her as a free spirit who sometimes wore funny socks and hats and always brightened the lives of those she met. She loved nature and traveling and hoped to one day work with dolphins. And her death inspired her brother, Jeremiah, to become a police officer.

"Between her birth and her death, the world was a better place because Shen was here," Chuck Poehlman said. "She was my guiding spirit. I kind of followed her."

The prosecutor read a statement written by Shen's mother, Janice Dullea: "Our family has lived in a fog like a nightmare you can't wake up from. ... I sometimes wake in the middle of the night and forget that this has happened and then I realize Shen is gone. If Shen could be courageous, suffer and die, then I can be courageous, suffer and learn to live."

A jury convicted Miller in 2000 of sexually assaulting, robbing and killing the teenager at his Reisterstown apartment after hiring her to baby-sit his nephew for five hours. The job was simply a lure. There was no child for Shen Poehlman to watch.

Prosecutor Robin S. Coffin told the judge yesterday that Miller had made similar arrangements with another young woman for later in the afternoon on the day that Shen was killed.

But four years after Miller was convicted and sentenced to death, Maryland's highest court overturned that sentence. In a complex ruling, a minority of the seven judges on the Court of Appeals found that Miller should not only get a new sentencing hearing but also a new trial because of the testimony of a state witness who may have lied about not having a deal with prosecutors in his own case.

Concerned that the loose thread would continue to complicate the case - even if another jury sentenced Miller to death a second time - Baltimore County prosecutors struck a complex plea agreement with Miller in August 2007.

Under the arrangement, the judge granted Miller a new trial on the first-degree murder charge. Miller then pleaded guilty to that count, and prosecutors withdrew the notice of their intention to seek a death sentence.

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