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Judge denies motion in murder case; trial set for August

Judge denies motion in murder case; trial set for August
Lester Aaron Snyder (HANDOUT)

A two-week trial for a Baltimore County man accused of first-degree murder will go forward in August after a Carroll County judge denied a motion by defense attorneys claiming that Maryland's sentencing laws are unconstitutional.

Lester Aaron Snyder, 27, of Windsor Mill, faces first-degree murder and related charges for allegedly fatally shooting Luis Javier Pol, 23, of New York, on Oct. 4 in Gamber, according to court records. A two-week jury trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 17.

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Prosecutors filed a notice that they intend to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole should Snyder be convicted, according to court records.

On Thursday, defense attorneys David McFadden and Samuel Nalli argued to Judge Michael M. Galloway that since Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013 — making life without parole the most severe penalty possible — there needs to be some guidance in the statute for when the most severe penalty should be applied, as there was with the death penalty law.

Public defender Thomas Nugent Jr. made a similar argument last year to Galloway in the case of Joseph Wesley Pine, 33, who faced life without parole for the murder of his father. Pine was convicted and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole as part of a plea agreement before Galloway issued a ruling.

A Howard County judge ruled last year that the current sentencing scheme was unconstitutional, according to McFadden, but announced the ruling from the bench with no accompanying memorandum explaining his logic. None of the attorneys present Thursday were aware of other rulings in the state or any cases pending before higher courts.

On Thursday, Galloway ruled from the bench and denied McFadden and Nalli's motion.

"It strikes me as though it is an argument to be made to the Legislature," Galloway said. "It strikes me that as long as the court, the trial judge, retains discretion as to whether or not to impose the sentence, that is a very great protection for the defendant."

McFadden argued that without any aggravating factors or circumstances in the statute to tell prosecutors when to seek life without parole, the punishment can be applied with unfettered discretion and even discriminatorily.

Allan Culver, Circuit Court chief attorney for the Carroll County State's Attorney's Office, said the law is not too broad as it stands because there is only one offense for which life without parole can be imposed: first-degree murder.

Culver also said life without parole is not a sentencing enhancement, as McFadden characterized it, but a sentencing option that has always been available in murder cases. The abolition of the death penalty did not change that.

Galloway pointed out there have never been criteria for imposing a sentence of life without parole and questioned why there should be criteria now.

McFadden responded that life without parole was not the most severe penalty in the past, as it is now.

Galloway said he has imposed life without parole at least once and it was a difficult decision to make even when the death penalty existed as the highest form of punishment.

Judges, Galloway said, place a lot of weight on the arguments made by both sides at sentencing hearings. The state's intention to seek life without parole does not mean the sentence will be given.

"There really is no limit in terms of what can be argued at sentencing," he said.

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