One of two brothers convicted of killing a teenage hitchhiker 27 years ago returned to court yesterday, asking an Anne Arundel County Circuit judge to let him request to have his life sentence shortened - as his brother's was five years ago.
The lawyer for William Clyde Conley, 53, told Judge Joseph P. Manck that his sentence was illegal because the judge who imposed it in 1978 incorrectly interpreted the law.
"It's clear that he believed that the only sentence he could give was life imprisonment," attorney Fred Warren Bennett said of Judge E. Mackall Childs, later saying, "Of course, that is not accurate."
Neither the defense lawyer nor the prosecutor corrected Childs, according to the transcript.
Childs could have suspended part of the sentence of life plus 20 years for first-degree murder and related convictions, both lawyers said.
In 2000, Bennett successfully made a similar argument for Conley's brother, Chester Conley, before Judge Clayton Greene. Greene, now a judge on the state's highest court, trimmed Chester Conley's sentence of life plus 30 years for first-degree murder and related convictions to 60 years by suspending all but 30 years of the life sentence.
Chester Conley has not been paroled, but with credit for good behavior could be released in about 13 years after serving 40 years, Bennett said.
When that argument was made to Greene by a different attorney for William Conley in 1998, Greene turned it down. Deputy State's Attorney William D. Roessler argued against allowing Conley to try again.
"It is the state's position that we shouldn't even be here," he said.
He said it was "irrelevant" that Greene allowed the argument two years later for the other brother and then shortened the sentence. The reasoning was not clear, Roessler said.
Manck said he would consider William Conley's request for a new sentencing hearing, but did not say when he would rule.
Unless he is paroled, William Conley has no hope of getting out of prison, Bennett said outside the courtroom.
Roessler said that if Manck grants a new sentencing hearing, he will argue for the same sentence imposed 27 years ago.
At the Conley brothers' trial, the pair denied involvement in the killing. Prosecutors maintained that the brothers - William was then 25 and Chester 27 - picked up two teenage girls in Glen Burnie who were hitchhiking from Harundale Mall on the night of March 30, 1977, but, instead of taking them to their homes, kidnapped them.
Dawn Burkman, 18, jumped from the moving car to avoid a sexual assault and was left on the side of the road. She died several days later of head injuries. Her 17-year-old friend was sexually assaulted but survived the attack.