Avoiding penalty of death is aim; Accused man's lawyer says slain girl, 17, consented to sex act; Teen-ager found strangled; Assault circumstances could decide whether sentence is death


CUMBERLAND -- As John A. Miller IV went on trial yesterday in the 1998 strangulation of a 17-year-old Carroll County girl, the prosecution and defense agreed that he killed her but clashed on another critical point: whether the teen-ager consented to a sex act with Miller.

The answer could determine whether Miller is sentenced to death if convicted.

"I am telling you today he is guilty of the killing," Miller's lawyer, Jerri A. Peyton-Braden, told jurors. But, she added, "If there was consent, there was no sexual assault."

She said Miller's statements contain two constant refrains: "I am the person who killed this girl," and "I'm so sorry."

Miller, 27, is charged with first-degree murder, attempted rape, first-degree sex offense, robbery and false imprisonment in the girl's death. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty -- but to obtain it must show the presence of "aggravating" circumstances, such as a sexual assault.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it is not disputed that that man killed Shen Poehlman," prosecutor Robin S. Coffin told jurors, pointing toward Miller. "It is disputed that she consented to what he did to her."

She told jurors that Miller has told many versions of what happened -- including a claim that the girl invited him to perform a sex act on her, and that he killed her so his girlfriend would not find out.

But Coffin said that Poehlman had a steady boyfriend. She pointed to physical evidence in the case: semen, linked by DNA tests to Miller, that was found on the girl's shirt and marks on the girl's neck that matched the pattern on Miller's herringbone belt.

Poehlman, a high school tennis champion and honor student who had won a scholarship to Florida State University, was found dead in her car at a Reisterstown apartment complex July 29, 1998 -- two days after she apparently agreed to baby-sit for a stranger who approached her at a swimming pool.

The trial was moved to Allegany County Circuit Court from Baltimore County because of extensive media coverage.

More than a dozen friends and relatives of the slain girl -- including her mother and father, grandparents and brother and sister -- attended yesterday's session. At times, some wiped away tears.

Janice Poehlman, the girl's mother and the prosecution's first witness, identified an object pulled from a brown paper evidence bag.

"It's Shen's purse," Poehlman said, her face twisted in anguish.

Coffin told the jury of eight women and four men that Poehlman went swimming with friends at the pool at Reisterstown's Bentley Park Apartments on July 27, 1998.

She said the girl agreed to baby-sit for Miller's nephew the next day, despite her friends' misgivings. When she failed to show up for work, police began a search that led them to the apartment that Miller shared with his girlfriend.

Miller, a stocky man with short-cropped hair, was dressed yesterday in a gray suit with a white shirt and a tie. He jotted notes during testimony, and during breaks he conferred with the two assistant public defenders who are representing him at trial.

Miller is a former high school baseball star from Rochester, N.Y., who lived in Maryland a few months before his arrest. He told police that he was in the Baltimore area to try out for the Orioles and that he had played golf the day the Poehlman girl disappeared, Coffin said. But when the girl's body was found early the next morning, Miller changed his account, the prosecutor said.

This time, she said, he told police that the girl had seen the "restraints" he kept in his apartment and "wanted to put them on." He told investigators that the girl asked him to perform oral sex on her -- and promised not to tell his girlfriend, the prosecutor said.

But he told police that it was his concern for what his girlfriend might find out that led him to put a plastic bag over the girl's head, Coffin said. He then said that after the girl bit through the bag, he wrapped a belt around her neck and stepped on her as he pulled it tight, the prosecutor said.

Peyton-Braden, the defense lawyer, told jurors that the baby-sitting story might have been a pretense. "Perhaps there was something else going on," she said, adding that the girl arrived at the apartment wearing short shorts but no underwear, a shirt that exposed her midriff and a hot-pink satin bra.

Prosecutors yesterday called two of the girl's friends to say that she frequently did not wear underwear.

While Miller is also charged with robbing Poehlman -- a crime that also could satisfy the death-penalty requirement for an aggravating factor -- Peyton-Braden told the jury that Miller was only trying to hide the girl's possessions.

The case could go to the jury by Thursday. If Miller is convicted, a sentencing hearing would likely begin Monday.

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