Prince George's Circuit Court Judge James M. Rea, citing county juries and judges' past reluctance to issue death sentences, declined yesterday to impose the death penalty on a Northeast Washington man convicted of murder and several felonies. Instead, he sentenced him to life in prison.
Rea invoked what he said were "community standards" used by the county's "cosmopolitan jurors" in reaching his decision in the case of Kenneth Guinyard, 24, who was convicted in November of first- degree murder, use of a handgun in a felony and three counts each of attempted kidnaping and attempted robbery.
Persons convicted in Maryland death penalty cases can choose to be sentenced by a jury or a judge, but the law makes no mention of "community standards" among the mitigating criteria resulting in a life sentence.
Judge Rea imposed the life sentence for murder and made lesser sentences for attempted kidnaping and attempted robbery run concurrently. He then added a 20-year consecutive sentence for the firearms offense. That means that Guinyard could not become eligible for parole for 25 years.
Guinyard was convicted in the fatal shooting in November 1984 of Rolf Richard Seiferth, who was shot once in the head while trying to thwart the abuduction of his fiance and her mother from the parking lot of Iverson Mall in Oxon Hill.
"The court has observed crimes much more heinous than the ones Mr. Guinyard has committed," said Rea, a judge for 17 years. "The court feels that in Prince George's County, Md. . . . a single death by a single defendant does not meet the community standard" for imposing the death penalty.
Rea imposed the death penalty once, in 1984. His decision was overturned on appeal.
State's Attorney Arthur Marshall called Rea's statements about community standards "ridiculous" and said his prosecutors will ask Rea not to preside over any death penalty case.
"It completely throws me," Marshall said in an interview. "It is not what the legislature intended. I can't see how a judge can set himself up as a community arbiter."
Marshall's office has sought the death penalty in more than 60 cases since 1978, when the state reinstated capital punishment. Only three death sentences have been handed down in Prince George's since then.
Those sentences -- two imposed by judges, one by a jury -- have been set aside on appeal and life sentences imposed instead.
Rea said he was not criticizing Marshall's policy on capital punishment but rather was sending a message to criminals in the county.
"What we're trying to tell people is that, you come around Prince George's County, Md., committing robberies and murders, the state's attorney is going to continue to ask for the death penalty," Rea said. "That's his prerogative. But even if you don't get the death penalty, you're going to get the maximum otherwise."
In sentencing Guinyard, Rea noted that Guinyard had no previous conviction for violent crimes and would be unlikely to commit other crimes if he were released. Guinyard will be eligible for parole in 25 years.
The victim's father, Howard Knoell, said, "Twenty-five years is a long, long time. But had it been [Rea's] son . . . . I would like to ask him about that."
While prosecutors said Guinyard fired the fatal shot, Charles William Wade Jr., 24, of Capitol Heights was also charged with first-degree murder in the case. After Wade pleaded guilty to the charge, prosecutors dropped their request that he be sentenced to death. Wade has not yet been sentenced.