Judge halves 100-year sentence for 1995 murder by juvenile

A retired judge on Wednesday cut in half the 100-year sentence he gave a defendant 23 years ago, partially granting a defense motion asking him to reconsider.

The defendant, Gerald Jamar Cook, 40, was convicted of second-degree murder and related offenses in 1996 for the shooting death of William Louis Miller the previous year. Cook, who was just shy of his 18th birthday when he committed the murder, has served 23 years of his sentence.

Prince George’s Circuit Judge Steven I. Platt, now retired, sentenced Cook to a total of 100 years in prison but never ruled on a motion to reconsider that was filed after sentencing. Platt held a hearing in August, more than 23 years after the motion was filed, and on Wednesday issued an opinion reducing Cook’s sentence to 50 years.

“(Cook) now has some hope that, eventually, he will be released if he’s favorably considered by the parole board,” said attorney Thomas McManus, of Sasscer, Clagett & Bucher in Upper Marlboro. “He’s still processing it, but we’re basically pleased that the sentence was effectively reduced by 50 years.”

McManus’ co-counsel, Linda M. Brown of the Law Office of Linda M. Brown in Laurel, was not immediately available for comment.

Cook had asked for his sentence to be reduced to 35 years, the upper limit of the range recommended at the time of his sentencing using advisory guidelines, according to the opinion. At the time, Platt said he deviated from the guideline because he found Cook was an “extreme danger to the community” and had a “total disregard for human life.”

Platt said it “gave (him) no pleasure” to sentence Cook to what amounted to life in prison in 1996 — Cook would first be eligible for parole at the age of 68 — and there is still pending litigation over the legality of the sentence in light of the evolving law on sentencing for juveniles.

Cook filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence in 2017, claiming recent Supreme Court and Maryland Court of Appeals opinions applying to juvenile sentencing require revisiting his case. A judge denied the motion and it was appealed. In November, the Court of Special Appeals issued an order to show cause why the appeal should not be remanded for further proceedings in light of a 2017 Court of Appeals decision.

McManus said that motion may have been rendered moot by Platt’s ruling because the new sentence is no longer tantamount to life in prison.

Platt said rather than addressing the legality of the sentence, the motion to reconsider asked him to determine if Cook was still a danger to the community.

“My short and final answer to that initial inquiry is that I really had little doubt in 1996 that my original sentence was not only fair and appropriate, but necessary to protect society,” Platt said in his opinion. “I still believe in 2019 that in fact that was the case at the time of the original sentencing in 1996. For that reason, I have no regrets about my original sentence, nor do I see any reason to reconsider it in 2019, some 23 years later, unless there is evidence that The Defendant has changed.”

At the time of the crime Cook was 17 years and 11 months old. He and two others forced their way into an apartment and demanded money. While they were searching the apartment, Miller entered and was put on the floor and shot. Platt noted that the jury did not believe Cook’s claims that he was not present.

At the hearing last year, Cook said, “I am not that 17-year-old who didn’t know the value of life,” and his sister testified that he has “changed” during his incarceration.

Platt said that his exclusive purpose in sentencing Cook to 100 years in prison was to remove him from society for public safety reasons but that, in 2019, other purposes of sentencing, such as deterrence and rehabilitation, should “perhaps” be given greater weight.

Though he said Cook’s crimes were and remain “horrifying,” Platt said the parole board can determine if Cook should be released, which will not happen immediately despite the reduced sentence.

A spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office was not immediately available for comment.

McManus said Cook was grateful for Platt’s decision and he and his family now have hope that he can eventually be released.

The case is State of Maryland v. Gerald Jamar Cook, CT951837B.