Crime Scenes: Former death row inmate sues

Claims of mistreatment revive anguish for victim's family

April 02, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

"Kill the bastard. Somebody has to if I can't."

It's been a decade since those words flashed across Charles Poehlman's mind. He's in a better place now, he says, anger replaced by acceptance. He still wants the man who killed his 17-year-old daughter to die, but he's come to terms with the fact that the state of Maryland won't execute John A. Miller IV.

But neither Poehlman nor Miller feels justice has been done.

Poehlman believes Miller finagled a system that coddles criminals to draw out proceedings and escape the death penalty. Miller feels wronged by a system once intent on killing him, and says in court papers that his life-without-parole sentence — to which he readily agreed to avoid lethal injection — is no longer acceptable.

The victim's relatives are trying to move on 13 years after the death of Shen Poehlman, an honors student, prom queen and tennis star at Liberty High School in Carroll County. Miller lured her to his Reisterstown apartment under the pretense of babysitting his nephew in the summer of 1998.

He sexually assaulted and strangled Shen with a belt two weeks before she was to head to Florida State University on an academic and athletic scholarship. She planned to major in marine biology.

Miller continues to fight, even though his appeals for a new trial and new sentencing have been repeatedly rebuffed. Last week, he filed another proceeding, this time in federal court, challenging the terms of his incarceration.

He's arguing that the state kept him on death row for four years after Maryland's highest court vacated his death sentence in 2004 and ordered a new trial. The Court of Appeals ruled that a key witness had lied in 2000 by denying he had worked a deal with prosecutors for leniency in his own criminal case.

Miller argues in his lawsuit that his confinement at the Supermax prison in Baltimore caused him "irreparable harm" because of restrictive conditions and limited medical benefits. He is seeking more than $2.5 million.

The members of the Poehlman family see this as another insult. They repeatedly thought the case had ended — only to end up back in a courtroom, a place they hoped to avoid after acquiescing to prosecutors who didn't want to push for the death penalty after a retrial was ordered in 2004.

It wasn't the ending the Poehlmans had wanted. But it was an ending, so they signed off on the deal: Miller would plead guilty and serve life in prison without the chance of parole.

Miller followed through and pleaded guilty but then had second thoughts before the judge could impose the sentence. He filed appeal after appeal, dragging the case out another four years. He claimed that his lawyers coerced him to plead guilty. Then he sought a new trial altogether. Then he filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea.

After Miller had exhausted all his challenges, a judge, finally, on Nov. 17, 2008, imposed the life-without-parole sentence to which Miller had agreed to four years earlier. And now, Miller is back again with a new grievance, and the Poehlmans are forced to confront the case once again.

"I can tell you that Mr. Poehlman has gone through an amazing process — through extreme anger early on to a really much healthier place for himself and the loss of his daughter," Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Robin S. Coffin, who helped prosecute the case, told me last week.

The prosecutor said the case would have been protracted no matter what plea deal was offered. "If it hadn't been death, we would've fought tooth and nail over life without parole," she said. After the death penalty came off the table, "we went to him with life without parole. He took it and very quickly had buyer's remorse."

Coffin added: "Who said the justice system was easy?"

The Poehlmans have struggled to move on. The victim's brother, Jeremiah, who was a teenager at the time of the killing, is now a police officer in Howard County. Coffin said the girl's mother remains "tortured by her daughter's death, and nothing we do to John Miller will change that."

Charles Poehlman — who described the jury ruling for the death penalty as "like a touchdown" — has come to terms with what has happened, but still wants Miller to die.

Miller "wants to get out," Poehlman said of the latest court challenge. "He wants to be able to walk as a free man, and he'll do whatever it takes to do that. He's clinging to that hope. … He doesn't want to face the truth that he will be in prison for the rest of his life.

"I have let go of my anger. … This thing that he's doing is more mental gymnastics for me. It doesn't upset me. I'm not at that forgiving stage, by any stretch of the imagination, and I do support the death penalty, and I would like to see his life end. I would look forward to him being off the face of this earth."

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