Man pleads guilty in Guilford attacks

Suspect kidnapped student; held women at gunpoint

March 17, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

A man whose suspended sentence in an armed holdup in Guilford three years ago became emblematic of problems with the city's criminal justice system pleaded guilty Thursday to two more violent attacks in the North Baltimore neighborhood and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

"You are a menace to the community," Circuit Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill told 21-year-old John Couplin. "The only thing that I can do is isolate you from the community. … There's a possibility you will rehabilitate. Maybe."

Couplin's crime wave through upscale Guilford included robbing a woman at knifepoint on the steps of her home in 2008, and two years later terrorizing three women together at gunpoint and forcing a college student into the trunk of his car while using his bank card to withdraw money up and down York Road.

The suspect's violent past attracted attention after his latest arrest in January 2010 in connection with the attacks on the women and the student, which occurred six days apart. The case became fodder for critics of then-State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy who viewed her as too quick to acquiesce to plea deals and too timid to take challenging cases to trial.

Guilford residents were outraged to learn after the January holdups that Couplin had pleaded guilty to the 2008 knife attack but had spent only about year behind bars. A judge had suspended eight years, 11 months and 10 days of a 10-year sentence. Couplin walked free the day he pleaded guilty on June 18, 2009, having served only the time spent awaiting trial.

Within six months, Couplin was back in Guilford, this time with a gun. One of the frightened women he robbed curled into a fetal position on the ground, the judge said, "I presume to avoid being shot," and the student spent hours locked in his trunk before he was able to escape his mid-morning abduction.

Officials at the time blamed each other for allowing Couplin back on the street after his 2009 conviction.

A spokeswoman for Jessamy, who was later defeated by Gregg L. Bernstein, called the police investigation shoddy and said it left prosecutors with no alternative but to accept a plea bargain. Police countered that they did the best they could with the evidence they had. And Circuit Judge John Addison Howard said he accepted the plea to help clear his crowded docket.

The victim of the 2008 attack also lashed out, saying she could have easily identified Couplin as the man who put a knife to her throat but that prosecutors told her that one-witness cases were problematic and too risky to take to a jury.

A new citizens group formed to monitor court cases and pressure prosecutors and judges put Couplin on their watch list. Stephen Gewirtz, a retired math professor from Morgan State University, who heads the group, joined City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke at Thursday's hearing.

Asked whether she agreed with the 20-year sentence, Clarke sputtered an emphatic "No." Standing in the hallway outside the courtroom doors, she explained: "Twenty years becomes 10 years becomes a modified sentence. The bottom line is that we have to track each and every one of these cases as they come up. We track only the violent offenders and the chronic offenders. He's both."

Defendants typically serve about two-thirds of their sentences, so Couplin could be out of prison in a little more than 12 years. The judge left it open for Couplin to request a sentence modification to prove that he has changed his ways while in prison. But Fletcher-Hill warned Couplin to "not get your hopes up," telling him, "I find it hard to imagine that after a few years I will find it safe to put you back in the community."

The judge also took note of Gewirtz and Clarke, who were sitting among audience members in the courtroom. "Thank you for following the proceedings," he told them from the bench. "It's important that citizens care enough to attend."

None of the victims wanted to speak in court. The college student who was forced into his car trunk did show up and was sitting in the prosecutor's office. Fletcher-Hill urged Assistant State's Attorney Lawrence Doan to ask him whether he wanted to say something, in part to determine whether the victim agreed with the plea agreement.

Doan returned to court to say that the man did not want to make a public statement but did consent to the 20-year sentence, which encompasses guilty pleas to three separate charges — kidnapping, armed carjacking and robbery with a deadly weapon. Two of the counts carry a maximum 30-year sentence; the other tops out at 20 years.

Couplin also declined to speak. When the judge asked him whether he wanted to address the court, the young man simply answered, "No, sir." Couplin has a lengthy criminal record that includes two armed robbery convictions when he was a juvenile and a shoplifting conviction from Baltimore County in November.

That conviction meant Couplin violated the terms of his probation from the 2008 knife attack in Guilford, and in January the same judge who had given him the controversial, suspended sentence reimposed all eight years, 11 months and 10 days. That time will be served concurrently with Thursday's sentence.

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