By Zach Shapiro
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Murder-for-hire is a misdemeanor in Maryland, and prosecutors have just three years to bring charges. State lawmakers from both parties want to change that.
A bill, co-sponsored by Delegates Geraldine Valentino-Smith, D-Prince George’s, and Susan McComas, R-Harford, would remove the statute of limitations for prosecuting solicitation to commit first-degree murder. It would also make solicitation, regardless of whether it resulted in death, a felony instead of a misdemeanor.
“Solicitation – which would involve the urging, advising or otherwise inciting a person to commit murder – is a heinous crime, a serious crime in our society,” Valentino-Smith said. “The time that has lapsed since it occurred should not be relevant.”
A 2017 law extended the window to prosecute from one year to three. Lt. Sean Gagen, deputy director of the Montgomery County Police Department-Major Crimes Division, said the recent change was a step in the right direction but didn’t go far enough.
“Murder investigations can be extremely complex and require a great deal of time and resources,” Gagen told lawmakers. “Some investigations take years to finally develop.”
Gagen, who was joined by other officers to testify on behalf of the House bill (HB0778), said increased gang violence in Maryland calls for more time to prosecute. In many cases, he said, gang leaders will try to distance themselves from the act by directing another member to commit the murder.
But with more sophisticated crime labs that are able to analyze forensic evidence, a thorough investigation could help reveal an accomplice, police said.
“The result of such a long investigative process would be worth it if we have the time to make the case and seek the appropriate penalties for the crime,” Gagen said.
The bill doesn’t stop at repealing the statute of limitations, though.
Once a conviction could be made, the charge would be strengthened from a misdemeanor to a felony. William Katcef, an assistant state’s attorney from Anne Arundel, pointed out the irony of such a minimal punishment for a serious crime.
“Theft over $1,500 is a felony,” Katcef told lawmakers. “Bad check over $1,500 is a felony. Interference with a horse race is a felony. But solicitation to commit murder is a misdemeanor.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is opposed to the bill, or any proposal to eliminate statutes of limitations, because they “…provide judicial safeguards for the accused, and particularly those who are innocent from any wrongdoing,” according to written testimony.
Their testimony continued: “As time passes…, crucial memories may be forgotten, tangible evidence may be misplaced, key witnesses may have died, and as a result once-exculpatory evidence may be impossible to obtain.”
Maryland spends more than $38,000 per prisoner, the ACLU wrote, and that by increasing the maximum sentence from three years to life, costs would go up.
In a legislative hearing including testimony from law enforcement officials and state prosecutors, perhaps the most compelling case came from Gale Seaton, a mother on a 13-year mission for justice.
In 2005, her pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Stacey Seaton, was killed in a murder-for-hire scheme.
The man who hired the killer, McDonald Abraham III, was arrested and charged with murder in 2009, according to court documents, too late to prosecute solicitation to commit the 2005 killing. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and a handgun violation and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
But Valentino-Smith told Capital News Service that the most serious evidence is often related to the solicitation.
To that end, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said they would have used details learned later about Seaton’s killing to secure a life sentence on charges of conspiracy to commit murder – if it weren’t too late.
“Mr. Abraham deserved that punishment and Stacy Seaton’s family deserved that justice,” Alsobrooks told lawmakers.
Seaton said she will continue to see this through.
“I got life without the possibility of peace,” Seaton told lawmakers. “My daughter got a death sentence. McDonald Abraham got a slap on the wrist.”