Judge in Prince George's County, Maryland, Defends Decision to Release Suspect in Killing

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

According to police, Sean Sykes and an accomplice stabbed a man in Prince George's County last month and then threatened to kill a witness who saw them dragging the victim out of an apartment building. Sykes was arrested, charged with second-degree murder and held on $1.5 million bond.

But when Sykes, 18, appeared in court last week, a judge took an unusual step: He released Sykes to the custody of his mother.

Yesterday, District Court Judge Hassan A. El-Amin defended his decision and denounced the Maryland judicial system's method of determining whether and under what conditions defendants are released before trial. El-Amin said the vast majority of defendants, even those charged with murder and other serious crimes, appear at bond hearings without an attorney, as Sykes did.

"Our whole bond system is problematical," El-Amin said in an interview. "It's barely constitutional."

A spokesman for State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said prosecutors will file a motion challenging the judge's decision.

"You might send a school kid home with his mother for playing 'hooky' or acting up in school," spokesman Ramon Korionoff said in a statement. "But for murder, where the original bond was $1.5 million, with the co-defendant threatening the witness to keep the witness quiet and where the witness lived in the same apartment complex, it ought to be another story."

District Court judges in Prince George's rarely release murder defendants before trial. The few who are released usually post a high bond -- generally no less than $500,000.

In setting bond, judges are supposed to consider the safety of the community and whether the defendant is likely to flee. About a dozen friends and relatives were in court to support Sykes on Thursday; El-Amin said he was convinced that Sykes was neither a danger nor a flight risk.

"I take the presumption of innocence very seriously," El-Amin said. "I read between the lines and listen to the voices."

Sykes is charged in the slaying of Rene R. Belasco, 24.

Shortly before midnight Feb. 24, police went to an apartment building in the 1100 block of Kennebec Street in Oxon Hill. Police found Belasco on the sidewalk, suffering from stab wounds. He died at a hospital.

A witness identified Sykes as one of the two men who dragged Belasco from the apartment building, according to a charging document. The men threatened the life of the witness if the witness talked to police, according to the document.

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