On Feb. 7, 1984, Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie announced the establishment of a 15-member commission to look at sentencing in the D.C. Superior Court. On Feb. 7, 1985, a year to the day later, he gave the commission something to look at. That was the day he revealed that he would sentence Edward Strother -- convicted of shooting his former girlfriend three times in the head while her 80-year-old grandmother looked on -- to 365 days of weekends in prison and payments to his victim's 6-year-old daughter.
It was, to understate the case, an unusual sentence. Public reaction to the recent sentencing, while mixed, appeared to be generally of the Has-Moultrie-lost-his mind? variety. Relatives of Carol Gray, the 33-year-old victim, were outraged at what they regarded as the devaluation of her life.
"I had only one thing in mind: to see what could be done for the decedent's daughter," Moultrie said in an unusual interview on his action. "I have no qualms about putting people in jail. In fact, it's the easiest, least controversial thing to do. I could have put this man in prison and let the citizens take care of him for the rest of his life, but what good would that do the child?"
The 54-year-old Strother, with no prior criminal record, had, according to a psychiatric report filed in the case, suffered a "sudden and largely unpredictable breakdown" over the failure of his relationship with Gray. His crime, Moultrie is convinced, was precisely the sort that is highly unlikely to be repeated. Moultrie concluded that it would serve no purpose, either for society at large or for the victim's daughter, to put Strother away for life. Still, he had to be punished.
In an unusual move, Moultrie announced what his sentence would be, then stayed the order for a week during which he met with five members of the victim's family. The sentence: 14 to 50 years for second-degree murder and 4 to 12 months for carrying a pistol without a license -- suspending all but 365 days, to be served on 146 consecutive weekends: a payment of $2,500 into a fund for the daughter's education, and $100 a month for the next 15 years; an additional $100 a month (out of a take-home pay of approximately $500 every two weeks) for the girl's maintenance and suport; a $25,000 policy on Strother's life, with the girl as sole beneficiary, and $25.48 a month reimbursement to the jail for Strother's food.
The judge says he believes his action was correct and that he has no regrets, though he doesn't "know if I would do it again -- every case is different." Which is part of the problem facing the sentencing commission Moultrie established a year ago to weigh the advisability of written guidelines for felony sentences. Judges, he said at the time, were concerned about "reducing unwarranted sentencing disparities and ensuring the equitable treatment of offenders."
It's easy enough, looking at the particulars of the Strother case and listening to Moultrie's reasoning, to conclude that this highly controversial sentence makes a good deal of sense. But if every sentence is to be based on the peculiarities of each crime and each perpretrator, it's hard to see how a reasonable schedule of punishments could be worked out.