ANNAPOLIS – A Maryland appeals court Wednesday upheld the mandatory 25-year jail term for a burglar who was sentenced just one day before lawmakers moved to relax the “three strikes, you’re out” law that put him behind bars.
The Court of Special Appeals said a Howard County Circuit judge was wrong to reduce Craig Nathaniel Webster’s sentence to two concurrent 10-year prison terms.
“The trial court possessed no authority to deviate from this legislative mandate,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell wrote for a three- judge panel of the appeals court.
That mandate was the state’s “three-strikes” law, which requires a minimum sentence of 25 years with no chance of parole for someone convicted of three “crimes of violence.”
Webster was convicted of daytime housebreaking in 1985 and robbery in 1989. Both were considered crimes of violence under the state’s three-strikes law.
On Jan. 25, 1994, Webster was convicted again of daytime housebreaking. As it was his third crime of violence, he was sentenced to the mandatory 25 years.
A bill was introduced in the state Senate the next day to drop daytime housebreaking from the list of violent crimes under the three-strikes statute.
That bill eventually passed and was signed into law, taking effect on Oct. 1, 1994. But lawmakers specified that the new provisions would apply only to criminals sentenced after Oct. 1, 1994.
Webster, in the meantime, had asked for a new sentencing hearing. It was not held until after the effective date of the new law.
On Jan. 29, 1997, Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney said “it would be unjust not to provide a new sentencing hearing” for Webster in light of the changed law.
“The type of crime that Mr. Webster was convicted of … is precisely the type of crime that the General Assembly found to be inappropriate to include as a crime of violence,” Sweeney wrote.
But Harrell said the new law could not be applied to Webster’s second sentencing hearing. The state “clearly” intended to “draw a clear line for application of the former and new definition” of violent crime, he wrote.
Assistant Public Defender John L. Kopolow said his office would decide next week if it would appeal the ruling.
“I think this case illustrates why (mandatory sentences) are not a good idea,” Kopolow said. “Mr. Webster was not a good candidate for a harsh sentence.”