For Baltimore's police commissioner, the death of Michael Sidney Guest Jr. offered a perfect opportunity to rail against the criminal justice system.

Police said Guest shot two people in the legs outside a court building in South Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood on the afternoon of Dec. 14 and, in turn, was fatally shot by an officer. The 32-year-old Guest had a long criminal record that began when, at age 15, he pointed a revolver at his best friend's head and pulled the trigger.

For that August 1993 killing, he served about four years in prison.

Last week, Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said Guest's case "raises a lot of questions in my mind about the value of life and the sentences that people in this city serve."

The judge who sentenced Guest retired a decade ago and moved to Florida. Richard T. Rombro doesn't remember all the details of the case, but some aspects do stick in his memory:

The mother of the victim and Guest's mother sat next to each other in court and hugged.

The dead boy's uncle promised to visit Guest in prison and give him help.

The victim's family was satisfied with the lenient sentence.

Rombro said he can look back at every one of his cases and wonder whether he was too harsh or too lenient. History lets him know whether he called it right.

"It's not really difficult to determine whether someone is guilty," the retired judge said. "The hard question is what to do with them after that."

What Rombro did was agree to a plea deal that prosecutors made with a defense attorney. Guest pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and a handgun violation, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison, with all but four years suspended. The judge said he took into consideration the teen's age, that he had no juvenile record, and that he had shot his friend while playing a game, and the victim's family appeared satisfied with the outcome.

Relatives and friends can't be found now; all that is left of the case are faltering memories and a court file unearthed from basement archives. That file contains a chilling statement that Guest gave to a homicide detective hours after he shot Jamal Taylor above the right eye in the master bedroom of the victim's house on North Forest Park Avenue.

One of the first questions Detective James W. Hagin Jr. asked the young man: "Do you know why you are here?"

Guest answered: "Yes. For the shooting of my friend."

The young suspect, who went by the nicknames "Little Micky" and "100 Miles," told the first officers who arrived to the call for help that he had been on the front porch and that Jamal had shot himself. He later told Hagin that he was visiting Jamal and their girlfriends when Jamal pulled out a black .38-caliber handgun. He said Jamal took the bullets out, put them on his mother's bed and handed him the gun.

Jamal then took out a toy gun that fires plastic discs and repeatedly shot at Guest. The young man said he looked at the side of the revolver, didn't see any bullets, and "I raised the gun and pulled the trigger. The gun went off and I turned around and Jamal was laying on the floor." He explained later: "He was shooting me, playing around, when he walked in front of me I picked it up and said 'Pow.' The next thing I knew is that it went off."

But Guest's story fell apart when Hagin interviewed his friends. The detective concluded that after getting shot with the plastic discs, Guest had picked up the bullets off the bed, loaded the gun and even as one girl tried to stop him, "he pointed the gun in the direction of the victim, pulled the trigger and shot the victim once in the head."

Rombro's sentence five months later allowed Guest to walk out of prison before his 21st birthday.

By 1999, Rombro had retired and Guest was back behind bars, sentenced by Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard to 13 years in prison for violating the terms of his probation on the murder conviction. He had been found guilty of twice writing bad checks to pharmacies and for drug distribution. Heard folded an eight-year sentence on the drugs into the total sentence and did not suspend any time.

But Heard revisited the case in November 2000 and agreed to modify Guest's sentence so he could attend a drug treatment program in Bethesda. She suspended nine years of the 13-year sentence, and with the time he had already served, that effectively put him back on the street.

From then on, Guest went in and out of jail on minor charges but nothing that included violence. Police said they don't know why he shot two people in the legs outside the courthouse Dec. 14. At the time, he had open warrants for missing court on a theft case in Anne Arundel County and a drug case in the city.

Even had the first judge given Guest a straight 18-year sentence with no suspended time - theoretically keeping him behind bars until 2011 - chances are he'd still have gotten out before then. Prisoners typically spend about 40 percent of their sentences locked up, and under that scenario Guest would have been out in late 2003.

Should the second judge have revisited the probation case and given Guest another chance?

Heard said she didn't recall the case, and Rombro said the question is unfair given that what we know now wasn't known then. In 1993, Guest was a high school dropout with no record.

"He was just a kid," the judge said. Besides, Rombro added, "The victim's mother felt it was a fair sentence."

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