- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

In 1992, Michael Wayne Sears walked into a bedroom of the home he shared with his children and wife, Debra, got a handgun and then went into another bedroom. There, he shot Debra in the side before shooting her in the head, as the three children sat outdoors. He then locked the door.

Last week, relatives found a missing woman named Darlene Williamson in a condo in Greenbelt. Her killer had beaten and stabbed her to death in the bedroom. Her killer then locked the door. On Monday, police found her suspected killer in Virginia. His name is Michael Wayne Sears.

Why wasn’t Michael Wayne Sears behind bars? Because of a dirty little secret in Maryland — a court rule that allows judges to reconsider their sentencings at the request of the defense. The procedural rule grants judges sole discretion to reduce sentences — they don’t have to have any rhyme or reason for doing so, and they can do it at anytime.

It is reportedly the only post-sentencing rule of its kind in America. At minimum, most states mandate that trial judges lose jurisdiction over their cases within a year, and many states prohibit judges from reducing sentences. Maryland judges codified their power to review sentences in 1950, adopting their own version of a federal procedural rule for reviewing sentences. Maryland’s rule is a blatant abuse of judicial power. It is a rule that the Ehrlich administration and the Maryland General Assembly must put the brakes on.

By any broad or narrow measure of judicious compassion and common sense, Michael Wayne Sears should have been behind bars. While no one’s certain what precisely was going through his mind on March 23, 1992, Michael Wayne Sears remembered several things. He remembered where the handgun was, because he retrieved and fired three shots into his estranged wife, Debra. He remembered the children were outside and that he didn’t want them to see their mother’s bloodied body, because he locked the door to the house. And he remembered how to reach police, because he made the call.

Michael Wayne Sears pleaded guilty to murder and gun charges, and Prince George’s Circuit Court Judge Joseph Casula sentenced him to 30 years. But in 1999, at the request of Michael Wayne Sears’ attorney, Judge Casula reduced the Sears sentence to 20 years. He was paroled in 2001. Between then and last week — about 20 months’ time — Michael Wayne Sears managed to buy a condo, a 2003 Toyota Camry, get a girlfriend and kill her.

Judge Casula characterized the news as “a judge’s worst nightmare.” But Judge Casula also did something else: He passed the buck. He said the final decision about Michael Wayne Sears’ release was made by the parole board and the Patuxent Correctional Institute.

Somehow, I don’t think the judge’s comments will comfort Darlene Williamson’s family. They won’t help her four sons, who must now live the rest of their lives without their mother. And they certainly don’t absolve Judge Joseph Casula.

The Sears case isn’t the only one in which Judge Casula utilized the post-sentencing rule and used poor judgment. In 1998, the year before he reduced Michael Wayne Sears’ sentence, Judge Casula reduced the sentence of a burglar named Donta Paige so that Paige could enter a drug-treatment program in Denver. Paige was kicked out of the program, and soon returned to his old habit: He burglarized a home not far from the treatment center — and raped and killed the young woman who lived there. Maryland judges passed the buck back then, too. And, thanks to a 1998 review hearing in yet another case handled by Judge Casula, Prince George’s County police chased an innocent man named Prince Jones into Virginia and fatally shot him, mistakenly believing he was the violent repeat offender released by the judge.

Thank Heaven above, Judge Casula has retired. But there are plenty of other judges in black robes all over Maryland who are reviewing cases, reducing sentences and, ultimately, setting in motion the release of violent ne’er do wells.

The Maryland legislature has tried to rein in this abomination called post-sentencing reconsideration, as recently as last year. So far, their attempts have not succeeded. Getting judges to relinquish that power will not be easy. But surely, the Ehrlich administration and the General Assembly don’t want more innocent blood on their hands.

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