The Boundaries of Justice

John Leroy Kroll pleaded guilty in 1980 to kidnapping and assaulting a young girl.
John Leroy Kroll pleaded guilty in 1980 to kidnapping and assaulting a young girl. (By Steve Bittner -- Cumberland Times-news)
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005

CUMBERLAND, Md. -- Some things are worse than murder, and nobody wants to know about them. So when the pudgy mama's boy named Johnny Kroll did what he did to the 9-year-old little girl out by the lakes 25 years ago and the courts sent him to prison for eternity, everyone agreed justice had been done. Nobody wanted to talk about it anymore.

What the 30-year-old Kroll did was kidnap the child and brutally assault her.

However, here's a short list of people who blew it the day Kroll pleaded guilty: The prosecutor. The judge. The defense attorney. Read: Everybody.

He assaulted that little girl in the Appalachian hills, yes, and Maryland nailed him for it. The problem was and is that he did it in Pennsylvania, not Maryland. The Maryland court sentenced him for an assault committed in another state. It's a bone simple violation of jurisdiction, perhaps the most basic pillar of the legal canon.

"How dumb can a state's attorney be?" says John Henry Kroll, the inmate's older cousin.

"I just don't know what to say," says John F. Fader II, a judge in Maryland for 26 years and now a senior judicial fellow at the University of Maryland School of Law. "When you don't have jurisdiction, you just don't have it."

Now there is no justice to be had, either.

A Maryland circuit court judge has vacated Kroll's sentence and dismissed the sex assault charges against him. He's already served the agreed-upon 15 years for the kidnapping. In terms of Maryland law, he's been held illegally for a decade. And -- you knew this was coming -- the statute of limitations has expired on the crimes in both federal and Pennsylvania courts.

There's a perverse precision to it. The court managed to make the one -- the only -- error it could have made that would let Kroll out of the life-plus-15-year plea bargain. In the words of Judge James S. Getty advising Kroll of his rights in a 1980 hearing: " . . . On a plea of guilty you waive any right to any defect in the prosecution of any nature other than jurisdiction" [emphasis added].

Scrambling to keep the 55-year-old Kroll behind bars, the state's attorney for Allegany County, Michael O. Twigg, on Thursday asked a judge to vacate the plea agreement. Twigg is asking for a new trial -- on charges that his predecessor agreed to drop a quarter-century ago. His argument is that Kroll, by pointing out the state's error, has breached the original deal. It's clever. It's imaginative. It's a long shot.

"I don't know that I've ever heard of a case like this," says Fader. "There's just no precedent for it."

During the half-hour hearing, Circuit Court Judge W. Timothy Finan noted that prosecutors had failed to take the usual step of securing a written agreement with Kroll at the time of the plea, had not asked the judge for a specific term at sentencing, and produced no witnesses during Thursday's hearing to say that a life sentence was their intent.

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