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A numbing decision Howard County: Minimum sentence in manslaughter raises criticism, questions.


AMID CRITICISM OF the minimum sentence for a Howard County man convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the 1993 chloroform death of his girlfriend, attention is again focused on the state's judicial sentencing guidelines and on their application.

The case poses troubling questions for many who support the concept of sentencing guidelines and the traditional independence of the judiciary. Widespread reaction seemed a mixture of perplexity and outrage at the four-month sentence handed down last month by Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. to Melvin R. Bowers, who admitted placing a chloroform-soaked rag over the face of his companion in bed. Victims rights advocates charged that the short jail term reflected a devaluation of human life by the court, and little example for deterrence of future such crimes. They were also appalled at Judge Kane's explanation from the bench that "this (incident) is something he (Bowers) will have to live with," as if that were sizable punishment in itself.

At the same time, the established parameters of justice were observed. A suspended sentence was recommended by the court's pre-sentencing investigation staff. His sentence fell within the guidelines for the offense (from four months to 10 years) and the prosecution had only asked for a sentence within those admittedly wide guidelines. Judge Kane allowed a victim-impact statement written by the dead woman's family to be read in court. A jury in the defendant's first trial declined to convict him of manslaughter, but a second trial jury did so last year.

Bowers claimed the death was an accident, that the woman had asked for the powerful anesthetic to relieve a toothache as they were drinking in bed, and that she had fallen asleep without removing the chloroform-saturated cloth. Prosecutors argued that he took nine hours to report the death to police, and had begun to dig a grave in his backyard.

While the decision of Judge Kane is open to public criticism, it apparently does not breach the limits of discretion given to judges. Perhaps the broad range in sentencing guidelines should be reviewed and tightened, but judges will still be required to apply them according to their own judgment.

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