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Prosecutors want maximum penalty for 2nd degree murder increased

Is carjacking akin to second-degree murder? In Maryland, the maximum penalty for both is 30 years, and prosecutors are pushing this legislative session for those convicted in a killing to see more possible prison time.

The Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, which has been mounting an aggressive social media effort to push a package of bills that would increase penalties for certain crimes, on Monday called for citizens to call their legislators and urge passage of the bill.

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"It's sort of crazy that you can take someone's car by force and you get the same penalty as if you killed somebody," Assistant State's Attorney Angela Diehl, who prosecutes homicides in Baltimore, said in an interview.

Prosecutors from across the state back the bill, and want the maximum penalty for second-degree murder increased to 40 years. Diehl noted that with good time credits assessed by the prison system, someone sentenced to 30 years will often be released after serving 20 years.

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Similar efforts have failed in two prior legislative sessions. Earlier Monday, a bill to up the second-degree murder penalty was pulled into a larger package of initiatives introduced as the Justice Reinvestment bill, the State's Attorney's Office said.

The wider reinvestment bill is backed by a broad coalition and was introduced by the Senate president. Still, the second-degree murder penalty enhancement wasn't originally part of that package, and its fate remains unclear.

The difference between first-degree murder, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, and second-degree murder is premeditation. Diehl said prosecutors argue to juries that under the law, even the most brief moment of calculation supports premeditation.

Still, prosecutors point to several brutal cases where juries rejected a first-degree finding and convicted of second-degree instead.

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James L. Dixon was sentenced to 30 years after a jury convicted him of stabbing Carrington McNutt at a Walbrook High School reunion party, while Lawrence Coverdale is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of second-degree murder in a case in which prosecutors alleged that he beat his landlord to death, then dragged his body into an alley and set it on fire.

At an earlier hearing in Annapolis on the bill, State's Attorney Wes Adams pointed to a case where a victim was stabbed 96 times. Prosecutors say domestic violence cases are also more likely to end with a second-degree murder conviction instead of first-degree.

Katy O'Donnell, who is the chief attorney of the public defender's aggravated homicide division, told legislators at that hearing that prosecutors were trying to get around jury verdicts that didn't agree with their view of the case.

"That's our jury system," O'Donnell told legislators. "What the prosecutors are saying is, we just think the jury got it wrong. They didn't do what we wanted them to do, so raise the penalty higher so that we can get" a more substantial penalty.

She said the penalty for second-degree murder was part of a "statutory framework" that should be looked at as a whole, instead of changes to single charges.

O'Donnell also said that raising the penalty would have a "chilling effect" on plea bargains. Prosecutors may offer pleas for second-degree murder when faced with challenges in a case, but defendants may be less likely to take the offer with a higher possible penalty. A life sentence and a 40-year sentence may make little difference to an older defendant.

Diehl noted juries don't take into account sentences when making a decision on charges.

Referring to the landlord-killing case, she said: "I'm fine with a verdict of second-degree, but not fine that he'll only do 15 years for doing this heinous act to this poor victim."

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