Disparate sentencing stirs strong emotions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article in yesterday's editions about two court cases in Towson stated incorrectly that a Rosedale woman was sentenced to three years in jail for having killed her abusive husband. In fact, she was sentenced to two years in prison.

The Sun regrets the error.

While critics condemned one Baltimore County judge for giving an 18-month jail term to a man who killed his unfaithful wife in a drunken rage, another judge handed a sentence twice as long yesterday to a woman who set her husband on fire after 11 years of alleged physical and mental abuse.

The anger erupted yesterday after Kenneth Lee Peacock, a 36-year-old Parkton trucker, drew an 18-month term from Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr. on Monday.

Peacock drove through a storm last winter to find his wife, Sandra, 31, in bed with another man, according to his bargained guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter charges. He drove the man off at gunpoint, then shot his wife in the head after two hours of drinking and arguing.

"If she were a battered woman who shot him, she'd probably be in jail," said Lisa Simeone, a women's rights activist and critic of county judges' attitudes toward women.

In fact, Patricia Ann Hawkins, a 34-year-old Rosedale woman, got a three-year jail term yesterday for killing her husband, Milton, last November by pouring lighter fluid on him and setting him afire after a day of alleged physical abuse and threats to her and her son.

In both cases, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to guilty pleas to voluntary manslaughter. But while Peacock got a sentence that was half as long as the prosecution recommended, Judge Barbara Kerr Howe gave Hawkins a sentence that was three times as long as prosecutors asked.

'What's the message?'

Even as Hawkins was receiving her sentence, prosecution and judicial offices were flooded with calls from women's groups and angry citizens protesting Peacock's relatively light sentence for killing his wife.

"What's the message we are sending out?" said Joanne Tulonen, executive director of the Maryland Alliance Against Family Violence.

"We are trying so hard to say to our kids, 'There's another alternative besides violence,' and here we have a grown man who could have very easily walked out the door, left the woman, and filed for a divorce, [but] chose to sit down, have a couple of drinks, stoke up the anger, pull out a gun and blast her. . . . And then we have a judge who validates that decision by his remarks."

Judge Cahill's friends said that he was trying to fashion a just sentence in a difficult case.

In sentencing Peacock, the judge said that he wanted to avoid sending the wrong message. He spoke at length and in a serious and sometimes struggling voice, saying that he understood Peacock's rage but that he would have to serve some jail time.

"I seriously wonder how many married men -- married five, four years -- would have the strength to walk away without inflicting some corporal punishment," he said.

Ms. Tulonen noted that Peacock inflicted "capital punishment," not corporal punishment.

At the House of Ruth, a shelter for battered women, Executive Director Carole J. Alexander said that she had called the state's highest judge to complain.

"We are getting calls from the community like crazy. People are just outraged," she said.

Judge Cahill did not return phone calls yesterday, and Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr., administrative judge for the 3rd Circuit, said a jurist should not comment on a case while post-trial motions could be pending.

Phone calls also were pouring in to the Baltimore County state's attorney's office. Many objected to plea-bargaining in general, said S. Ann Brobst, chief of the office's Circuit Court division, while others questioned the manslaughter plea.

"We have to evaluate all the facts and circumstances of each case, trying to get to a place to what you think your best verdict would be."

Defense attorney David B. Irwin told Peacock after the sentencing Monday that he had received "the most merciful sentence that the judge could fashion for you."

He and prosecutor Michael G. DeHaven both noted that while the victim's mother mourned her daughter, she also liked and sympathized with the defendant and was unable to complete a victim-impact statement.

'We are so torn'

A longtime friend of the family, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she spoke to Mrs. Peackock's mother yesterday. She said that the woman's mother had wanted a stronger requirement that her son-in-law receive treatment for alcoholism, and thought that he'd get a little more jail time but was not outraged by the sentence.

"For so many of us, we are so torn," said the friend.

Mr. Irwin said critics should focus their efforts on Maryland law, which says it's manslaughter "if you catch your spouse in bed with another person and you kill them within a reasonable amount of time."

Asked about Judge Cahill, several Baltimore County lawyers described him as an intelligent and fair jurist who is not afraid to make unpopular decisions, although a few said he could be unsympathetic to domestic violence issues.

H. Russell Smouse, who served as a federal prosecutor with Judge Cahill in the 1960s and later was his law partner for eight years, praised him as "a man of great strength, courage and integrity."

Mr. Irwin, who was swamped with calls from tabloid and network television shows after news of the sentence broke, said, "I'm a little surprised at the total uproar, although what with the O. J. Simpson case and the domestic violence being such a current issue, it doesn't surprise me much that people are interested in this."

In the sentence handed down to Hawkins yesterday, her friends and family told Judge Howe that she had endured years of physical and mental torture that culminated on Nov. 24, 1993, when Mr. Hawkins allegedly beat her, threatened to kill her and threatened to harm her young son.

Later that night, Hawkins doused her sleeping husband with lighter fluid and set him on fire. He died of smoke inhalation and burns over 35 percent of his body.

"I am not a bad person," she said yesterday. "No one knows what he did to me except me and my Heavenly Father."

Prosecutor Mark H. Tilkin said he was satisfied that Hawkins had been abused, but asked for a one-year sentence to show that the state was not condoning the murder.

"Quite frankly, this is a serious crime. There's a person not here today who was here this time last year. There was a life lost," he said.

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