Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Richard H. Sothoron Jr. took the bench in the Upper Marlboro courthouse yesterday to preside over a hearing in which a man who admitted participating in the murder of an off-duty D.C. police officer would ask for a reduction in the life sentence Sothoron had given him nearly seven years earlier.

The courtroom was packed with about 40 D.C. police officers, including Chief Charles H. Ramsey and most of his command staff, present to express concern that Donovan S. Strickland might not serve life for killing D.C. officer Oliver W. Smith Jr. in 1997. But the case took an unexpected twist: Within minutes, the prosecutor and the defense attorney joined forces in asking Sothoron to schedule a hearing to determine whether the judge had already agreed, in 1998, to reduce Strickland's sentence.

Sothoron objected. But after an unusual personal intervention by county State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D), Sothoron was directed by the chief administrative judge to schedule a hearing in which Sothoron will be a witness, not the judge, according to Ivey and the defense attorney.

The issue to be determined, according to Assistant State's Attorney John Maloney, is whether Sothoron told defense attorney Michael S. Blumenthal, before Strickland pleaded guilty nearly seven years ago, that he would reduce Strickland's sentence from life to 50 years in prison. Blumenthal said in an earlier hearing that his client pleaded guilty because he believed Sothoron would reduce his sentence.

Sothoron said in court and in an interview that there is no need for the planned hearing.

Under a controversial Maryland law, judges can reduce sentences they have meted out at the request of the defendant.

Yesterday's court action began with Sothoron hearing a sentence reconsideration motion filed by Strickland, now 37. Strickland was one of three men convicted in Smith's highly publicized murder.

Smith, 28, was attacked at gunpoint in the parking lot of his Forestville apartment complex early Feb. 26, 1997. He was ordered to lie facedown and was fatally shot after one of the assailants grabbed his police badge, according to testimony.

In January 1998, a Prince George's jury convicted Strickland of robbery with a deadly weapon and using a handgun in a crime of violence, but it deadlocked on the murder charge. Strickland testified in that trial that he held a gun to Smith's head and took part in the robbery, but he denied shooting the officer.

Strickland was scheduled to be retried on the murder charge March 3, 1998. That day, he pleaded guilty to felony murder. Sothoron sentenced Strickland to life in prison.

At yesterday's hearing and in court filings, Blumenthal said that Sothoron had agreed during a meeting in Sothoron's chambers to later reduce Strickland's sentence to life with all but 50 years suspended if the defendant pleaded guilty.

Sothoron said in an interview that he met with Blumenthal and the prosecutor, former assistant state's attorney William M. Manico. There was nothing improper about the discussion, Sothoron said.

When Strickland entered his plea the next day, Sothoron told him that if he was a model prisoner, "the court would be inclined to favorably reconsider that motion [for a reduced sentence] at some point in time in the future," according to a court transcript.

If the sentence is reduced to 50 years, Strickland would be eligible for a parole hearing after 25 years, according to defense attorneys and prosecutors. In the meantime, Strickland could also reduce his sentence by as many as 20 days a month for good behavior.

During yesterday's hearing, tension flared between the prosecutor and Sothoron. "You cannot be both the judge and a witness," Maloney said, asking for a hearing on whether Sothoron had promised a sentence reduction. Repeatedly, Sothoron disagreed. Ivey rose from his seat in the spectator's gallery and walked to Sothoron's bench, and after a brief discussion the hearing was adjourned. Sothoron later reconvened the hearing and said he was continuing the matter at the direction of the chief administrative judge.

"We want to make sure [Strickland] stays in jail and the sentence stays in place," Oliver Smith Sr., the victim's father, told reporters outside the courthouse.