Montgomery County judge goes easy on child sex offenders

Sunday, May 16, 2010

JUDGE ERIC M. JOHNSON of the Montgomery County Circuit Court, whose long career includes a stint as a prosecutor, would probably recoil at the suggestion that he is soft on child molesters. But what other conclusion to draw after his latest act of charity toward this especially repulsive class of criminal -- his second in three years -- this one directed at a man convicted of abusing a 4-year-old girl?

On scant evidence, Judge Johnson concluded on May 7 that Jason Lay, now 26 years old, had become a different person in the five years since he was convicted of forcing the girl to perform sexual acts while she was in his care. "I find your remorse to be genuine," the judge told Mr. Lay -- the same Mr. Lay who made faces at witnesses during his trial in 2005. The judge knocked 14 years off Mr. Lay's original 30-year sentence. Rather than remaining behind bars until 2035, Mr. Lay will be eligible for parole in 2013, after just eight years in prison -- and before his 30th birthday.

Judge Johnson's decision was disturbing on a number of levels. It raises questions about whether, when it comes to child molesters, he hands down sentences with a nod and a wink. Owing to a quirk in Maryland law that allows courts to revisit and reduce sentences at the defense's request, two years ago the judge cut an 18-year sentence for another child molester, Stanley D. Schwartz, to just 18 months. Mr. Schwartz, whose own children testified against him and urged the judge to impose the longest prison term possible, had been convicted of abusing three youngsters.

It was that same provision of state law that enabled the judge to halve Mr. Lay's sentence based on the testimony of a single social worker who examined Mr. Lay and found him remorseful. (What else would Mr. Lay say -- that he reveled in the memory of abusing a pre-schooler?)

Almost as disturbing was the judge's apparently cavalier attitude toward the dangers faced by convicted child molesters; Mr. Lay has been attacked by gang members in prison and was once stabbed 13 times, according to his lawyer. "Those are collateral consequences, which come about as a result of having been convicted," said Judge Johnson. Does he mean that assault in prison is no big deal, so let's talk about the convict's deep remorse instead? No one -- and particularly no judge -- should accept rapes, assaults or other criminal behavior in prison as "collateral consequences" of a sentence.

Only in Maryland do trial courts have unchecked power to reduce sentences even for violent crimes. Serious questions have been raised about that power in the past, following instances in which former inmates committed murder, rapes and other crimes after their terms were trimmed. There is conflicting research about the rate at which convicted child molesters offend after serving prison sentences, but one thing is not in doubt: their crimes are extraordinarily damaging and their victims generally defenseless. That should have been more in Judge Johnson's mind when Mr. Lay and Mr. Schwartz came before him seeking leniency. This week Judge Johnson sentenced another child molester, Virgilio Nunez, to 37 years. We'll see if that sentence sticks.

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