PoliceOne Staff Report (PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY, Md.) -- In a move that has stunned the state's attorney yesterday, a circuit court judge reversed the voluntary manslaughter conviction of a former county police officer who fatally shot his ex-girlfriend, replacing the sentence with probation before judgment.
Judge Richard H. Sothoron Jr. effectively reduced the sentence of Paul David Lancaster, 31, to one day in jail for shooting Christina Hopper, 31, three times with his service revolver in September 1997 during a domestic fight.
The case has been at the center of controversy with in the state's attorney's office for several months. Two officials were removed from the case when they refused to seek an indictment.
State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson, who signed off on the original plea bargain was highly critical of the judge's decision, saying it "undermines the criminal justice system."
"I've never seen or heard anything like this. It tells people the system is unfair, and it sends the message that police officers are unaccountable," Johnson told the Washington Post.
Sothoron defended his decision yesterday saying, "While the state opposed a reconsideration of [Lancaster's] sentence, it did not do so vehemently," Sothoron, who is president of the Maryland State Bar Association, told the Post.
On Nov. 19, 1998 Lancaster pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but the judge suspended all but a day of the sentence. Sothoron said that the state did not oppose the probation sought by Lancaster's defense attorney at the time.
"This is very, very chilling. It's a miscarriage of justice," Carole Alexander, executive director of the House of Ruth, a statewide advocacy group and battered women's shelter, told the Post. "This calls for a very intensive investigation to find out what in the world is going on in the state's attorney's office that something like this could happen."
In August prosecutors agreed not to seek jail time for David Michael Gray, 37, another former county officer who shot and wounded his girlfriend. He was ordered by the judge to resign from the department.