Local and national women's rights groups, surrounded by TV crews, converged on the Towson courthouse yesterday to protest an 18-month work-release sentence handed a Parkton trucker this week for killing his unfaithful wife.
"A marriage license is not a license to kill. Infidelity is not a corporal or a capital offense. If it were, there would be far fewer people alive today," Paula Keefer, president of the Baltimore National Organization for Women, told a crowd of 100.
The case, which has attracted national attention, involved Kenneth Lee Peacock, 36, who shot his wife Sandra, 31, in the head with a hunting rifle in February about two hours after he arrived home unexpectedly during a winter storm and found her in bed with another man.
As part of a plea bargain, Peacock pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received 18 months on work release, although the prosecution argued for the three- to eight-year prison term calculated under Maryland's sentencing guidelines.
Peacock, who had driven the other man out of the house at gunpoint, said he shot his wife accidentally.
While condemning the killing, Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr. said he could understand Peacock's rage. The judge wondered aloud how many married men would have the strength to just walk away "without inflicting some corporal punishment."
That comment was denounced in hand-lettered signs in the plaza, such as one by the Baltimore Men's Antisexist Coalition that read: "Cahill says execution for adultery is OK."
"It's just amazing how big this has become," said Ms. Keefer. She said her office has been handling calls from across the country from people "wanting to know what they can do." She attributed the heightened interest to the recent start of the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
Protesters shouted for justice, passed petitions and held up banners that called for Judge Cahill's removal from the bench.
State Sen. Paula C. Hollinger recalled meeting with the Baltimore County Bar Association eight years ago in an attempt to get more women on the bench. Of the 15 judges on Baltimore County's Circuit Court, 14 are men.
Others speakers included Lisa Simeone of the Women's Action Coalition; Kim Gandy, national vice president of NOW from Washington; Carole Alexander of Baltimore's House of Ruth; and Jean Satterfield, president of the county's Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center.
"Just a few days ago, Judge Cahill opened hunting season on women retroactively -- and he issued the first license to Kenneth Peacock," Ms. Gandy told the crowd.
Barry Farrare, a 25-year-old financial accountant and former volunteer at the House of Ruth, said he came to the protest after reading about the case.
"From a male point of view, I think it definitely sends the wrong message to the community. I don't think taking someone's life is the answer, instead of walking away," he said.
"I think the problem is going to be swept under the rug . . . but maybe it won't happen again."
Ms. Alexander told the crowd that the judge and the state's attorney's office had said, in effect, that "murder is no big deal -- in fact, is a fitting punishment."
The case has "made Maryland a focus of shame," she said, with judges "who shame and blame the victim. . . . We all know Judge Cahill is not our only problem."
Jim Hemling, a 64-year-old retiree from Bel Air, came upon the rally by happenstance. He said Judge Cahill had a tough decision to make and should not be faulted.
"I think the guy probably got an appropriate sentence," said Mr. Hemling. "I think the sentence was light, but I don't think that he made it against women. He just made an honest-to-goodness decision in a situation where there were two wrongs. He shouldn't have shot her, and she shouldn't have cheated."
Ms. Gandy, the NOW vice president, said she has been fielding calls from around the country and appearing on national talk shows that draw a preponderance of first-name-only male callers.
"Caller after caller sounded the same theme: She got what she deserved," Ms. Gandy said. "But this is a guy who executed her. He had time to think, time to decide what to do. We don't know what this woman went through -- whether she was begging for her life, whether he put the gun in her mouth during those hours while he was deciding whether to take her life."