A Prince George's County Circuit Court judge ordered the release yesterday of a man serving a life term for strangling a 7-year-old Laurel girl in September 1972, providing a judicial end run around Gov. Parris N. Glendening's policy of not granting early release to violent offenders sentenced to life imprisonment.
Judge Larnzell Martin Jr. said he was aware he was breaking with Glendening's policy when he ordered the release of Richard Wayne Buckingham, 52, and said he believed it was the right thing to do. Martin said Glendening's policy, announced in September 1995, was not in effect when Buckingham was sentenced and is not retroactive.
Buckingham, who has been incarcerated since Sept. 7, 1972--two days after the body of Amy Carol Morrison was found near a Bowie racetrack--likely will be released from the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup today, officials said.
Because of Glendening's policy, Buckingham's only chance at freedom was through the judiciary, members of which governors appoint but do not control. He had been before the parole board twice, both times unsuccessfully and before Glendening became governor.
Buckingham is believed to be at least the third Maryland prisoner serving a life sentence to be freed since Glendening's policy went into effect.
"The governor does not parole criminals who have committed heinous crimes and who have been sentenced to life," Mike Morrill, Glendening's communications director, said yesterday.
Two cases challenging Glendening's no-parole policy are pending before the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.
At a hearing yesterday, Martin ruled that the sentencing judge erred by not recognizing that he could have suspended a portion of Buckingham's sentence when it was imposed, and he agreed with Buckingham's lawyer, Fred Warren Bennett, that Buckingham would not pose an unacceptable risk if released.
Buckingham, a Vietnam veteran, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Bennett. The Greenbelt attorney said Buckingham was high on drugs and having a flashback of Vietnam when he killed the girl. He was sentenced to life in prison by Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Kenneth C. Proctor.
Buckingham's murder trial was moved to Baltimore County at the request of his defense attorney, who argued that Buckingham could not get a fair trial in Prince George's County because of publicity about the slaying.
Yesterday, Martin resentenced Buckingham to life in prison, with all but 35 years suspended. The judge gave Buckingham credit for the 27 years and 49 days he has served and imposed a number of conditions on his freedom.
Buckingham, who plans to move to Dayton, Ohio, to live with his parents, will be on supervised probation for five years, is prohibited from unsupervised visits with minors and must take medication for the stress disorder, Martin ordered.
A psychiatric examination ordered earlier this year by Martin showed that Buckingham would pose a "moderate to low risk" of being dangerous in the future, Bennett said.
Bennett praised Martin, saying it takes "courage to put yourself in a situation where you can be second-guessed" and blasted the governor's no-parole policy.
"The governor's policy is an absolute outrage," Bennett said. "It's pandering, and it's making the [penal] institutions a tinderbox because inmates with life sentences have no hope they'll ever get out."
But Mark K. Spencer, deputy Prince George's state's attorney, criticized Martin. "We believe that the court has made a very serious error in judgment in this case," Spencer said in an interview with WRC-Channel 4 News.
"It's just not right," Doris Martin, the mother of the victim (and no relation to the judge), said after attending yesterday's hearing.
Roberta Roper, the founder of the Stephanie Roper Foundation, a victims' rights organization named for Roper's slain daughter, said, "I understand the judge's reasoning, but I would have preferred that Buckingham serve a life sentence."
A month before the blond, brown-eyed Amy was killed, Buckingham had been dishonorably discharged from the Army. He was living next door to the house in Laurel where Amy's family lived. Buckingham reportedly confessed to county police, although the judge barred prosecutors from using those statements at Buckingham's trial.
While serving in Vietnam, Buckingham shot and killed a 13-year-old Vietnamese girl, according to attorneys involved in his case. The Army concluded Buckingham mistook the girl for an older male who was coming at him with a hand grenade, Bennett said.
CAPTION: Amy Morrison was 7 when she was murdered. Richard Buckingham has served 27 years for the killing.