Jail sentence given in faked racial attack Woman damaged her home to defraud insurance companies; 'Unconscionable'; Laurel resident to pay $26,187 in restitution, serve 9 months

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Sonia James faked a racial attack on her North Laurel home to get money, the victims stretched far beyond the insurance companies, a Howard County judge said yesterday. The community as a whole suffered, he said.

Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney sentenced James, 29, to nine months in jail and ordered her to pay $26,187 in restitution. The money will go to the insurance companies that paid her claims and to people who donated $2,802 to her when police mistakenly believed the attack on her house was the worst hate-bias crime in Howard history.

Sweeney said James' hoax may hurt people who are the victims of hate-bias crimes.

People "will tend not to believe allegations of racism and use this case as a reason," Sweeney said. "They'll say 'It's just like that case in Laurel.' "

The sentence is stiffer than the state's guidelines, which call for probation to six months of incarceration. James pleaded guilty in January to one count of felony theft and one count of insurance fraud.

The initial report of the April 1996 incident at the Seasons apartment complex spurred an outpouring of community support. The Police Department set up a satellite office in the neighborhood. Race relations became a topic on everyone's lips.

Then police announced that the incident had been a hoax. And the crime that day instead became James' staging of the menacing scene -- anti-black statements had been spray-painted on the walls and carved into the furniture, and the house was flooded.

When Sweeney announced the sentence, deep, heaving sobs came from James' mother, Mary James, who lived with her daughter and her daughter's son. Her father lowered his head and rested it on the handle of his cane.

Both parents testified in their daughter's defense, asking that the judge not send James to jail. Her problems were more emotional than criminal, they said.

Mary James said her daughter was in deep financial trouble and was under a lot of family pressure to succeed in life. She lied to her parents and said she was attending law school, because she knew they wanted her to be a lawyer, her mother said.

"She had a lot of pressure on her to prove herself," Mary James testified, adding that she never knew of the troubles her daughter was having.

In a brief statement before the judge, Sonia James apologized.

"I took advantage of people's kindness," James said. She told the judge she was working to pay back the money and had enrolled in college. "I am begging the court for a second chance."

Her attorney, Marcia Stephenson, said James is in therapy and taking anti-depressants. She recalled the case of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who sent police on a nationwide manhunt for a black man who had kidnapped her children, only to confess to killing them herself.

"When all the dust was cleared what was left behind was a pathetic soul," Stephenson said of the Smith case. James "is the pathetic person" in this case.

Prosecutors painted a very different portrait of James, who had her eyes trained on the ground throughout much of the two-hour hearing.

Assistant State's Attorney Sang Oh said James planned the crime to embezzle money from insurance companies. She made fliers attributed to a fake racist group and planted them in the neighborhood to set the scene for her crime.

When first questioned by police, James steered them to residents across the street she said had given her family "hard looks," Oh said. Those people were investigated by the Police Department.

"It was, in every aspect, unconscionable," Oh said.

He added: "The defendant knows that racism is a problem in our society the defendant knew that and ripped at the heart of society."

Pub Date: 8/30/97

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