- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

Michael W. Sears, who murdered his wife 11 years ago, pleaded guilty this week in Prince George’s County to murdering Darlene Williamson, his girlfriend, in May — less than two years after getting out of jail on the first murder conviction. Sears is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 15, at which time prosecutors say they will ask for nothing less than a life term behind bars.

Unfortunately, as Sears’ history with Maryland justice system shows, there’s no real assurance that this cold-blooded killer (and for that matter, any of the thousands of other violent felons now behind bars in Maryland) won’t be able to persuade some judge to set him free to prey upon the rest of us.

By any measure, the Sears case has become a powerful symbol of what is wrong with the criminal justice system in Maryland, where judges have virtually unlimited power to reconsider sentences at any time; Maryland is apparently the only state in the country with such a system. On March 23, 1992, Sears marched into the bedroom of his Clinton home and shot his wife Debra to death as the couple’s three children sat outdoors. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the case and sentenced to 30 years in prison by P.G. Circuit Court Judge Joseph Casula.

In 1999, Judge Casula reduced Sears’ sentence to 20 years after reviewing an evaluation of Sears by a state psychiatrist named Neil Blumberg, paving the way for his early release from prison. Mr. Blumberg, The Washington Post reported, wrote a letter to Judge Casula advising him that Sears “is at very low risk to engage in future violent behavior if released from incarceration.” In 2001, after serving just nine years behind bars for murdering his wife, Sears was paroled. On May 25 — just 20 months after his release from prison in 2001 — Miss Williamson’s body was found in Sears’ apartment. She had been stabbed 26 times and beaten. Of course, had Sears remained in prison where he belonged, Darlene Williamson would still be alive today, and her four children wouldn’t be growing up without their mother.

Fortunately, Judge Casula has retired from the bench. But the perverse system that gives like-minded judges unlimited power to review sentences of violent criminals like Sears remains in place. Now, a judicial committee, headed by Judge William Missouri, says the Maryland Conference of Circuit Courts will recommend that a five-year limit be implemented so that judges cannot revisit felony cases a decade or more down the line. That isn’t good enough. Felons — especially murderers — should not be eligible for any reconsideration of sentences. We urge Gov. Ehrlich and the General Assembly to take action to end this practice when the legislature convenes next month.

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