Disgrace in blue Police misconduct: Light sentence for officer convicted of sex assault yet another indignity.


THE SAME Howard County police officer, who in 1992 was involved in a controversial incident in which a rape victim was given a polygraph test, was himself convicted this week of second-degree sexual assault involving a college student last year. The 23-year-old woman from Silver Spring, stumbling drunk on a Columbia road, was sober enough to think that a passing policeman was going to get her home safely.

Repulsive as this story is, it was made worse by the fact that former police Sgt. Thomas M. Martin received the minimum sentence -- four years -- for his crime. He could have received eight times that penalty: 31 years.

Circuit Court Judge James B. Dudley chose far too light a punishment for a man the public trusted to uphold the law. Perhaps he was swayed by character witnesses who testified that Martin was a hard worker, a loyal friend, a devoted husband. The rape victim offered a different picture: Of an officer who drove her to two locations and sexually assaulted her with his flashlight before taking her home.

Prosecutors asked for a sentence of at least nine years, arguing that the crime was made worse by Martin's violation of his oath to protect the public. Indeed, when a crime is committed against a police officer, the penalty is often harsh; the law rightly takes into account his position in society as someone who puts his life on the line for the public good. Yet if a police officer commits a crime, he can be treated like any other person, or may even get special treatment.

Martin used his uniform to perpetrate a crime. He took advantage of a citizen's trust in what it symbolizes. A county police cruiser wound up being the scene of a terrible crime. Indeed, alarms should have gone off in the upper echelon of the department back in 1992, when Martin behaved as he did to a rape victim. He accused her of lying after she failed a lie-detector test. It was later determined that she had indeed been raped by a man who was free to terrorize another victim. Howard Police Chief James N. Robey vehemently defended his man and sloughed off the criticism.

To the public, however, that incident signified a dismissal of the gravity of rape. Sentencing a law officer to a minimum penalty for sexual assault achieves the same sorry end.

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