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Signing of Justice's Law bittersweet for family

Victim's mother says she will continue raising awareness about child abuse

May 02, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com
  • Relatives of the late Justice Christopher Calvin Myers-Cannon were in Annapolis on Wednesday to watch Gov. Martin O'Malley sign a bill called Justice's Law into law. Washington County Sheriff's Office investigators, an assistant Washington County state's attorney, bill sponsors Sen. Christopher B. Shank and Del. Neil C. Parrott, and other advocates also were there.
Courtesy of governor's office

Justice’s Law, which was signed into law on Wednesday by Gov. Martin O’Malley, was more than four years in the making.

Beginning on Oct. 1, the law will add 10 years to the 30-year maximum prison sentence for fatal child abuse.

It’s named in memory of Justice Christopher Calvin Myers-Cannon, a 4-month-old boy who was shaken to death in Washington County in 2007.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, the lead bill sponsor, said he thought back during the bill-signing ceremony to a county delegation public meeting in 2008. Justice’s grandfather, Bob Spessard, urged legislators at that meeting to make first-degree child abuse a crime that triggers a first-degree murder charge when the victim dies.

That meeting was held two days after Floyd Edward Bingaman III of Hagerstown was sentenced to 30 years in prison for causing Justice’s death.

Shank said at the time that Spessard’s idea probably wouldn’t work, but he’d try another way, which became the push for a stronger maximum penalty — life in prison instead of 30 years.

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He recalled telling the family, “This could take a while,” because of the difficulty of getting such a measure through the House Judiciary Committee, on which Shank served at the time. But, if you stick with it, we’ll keep working on it together, he remembered telling them.

The signing of the bill in Annapolis was a milestone for supporters after seeing the same proposal fail in four previous Maryland General Assembly sessions.

Dee Myers, Justice’s grandmother, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that it was “a very blessed day.”

Asked what she was thinking as the bill was signed, she said: “I really think I was in awe. You just want to smile as big as you can, and yet the tears fell at the same time.”

Myers said she was emotional, but on this day it was a swell of pride, rather than “reliving the nightmare” of Justice’s death each year as she testified at bill hearings.

Ashley Brown, Justice’s mother, said reaching the end of the legislative line was bittersweet — some good will come out of a tragedy.

Brown said she and her family will continue raising awareness about child abuse.

In an interview on Tuesday, Myers credited Greg Alton, a Washington County Sheriff’s Office detective who worked on the criminal investigation, with inspiring her to try to change the law.

When the family was having a hard time coping with Justice’s death and the punishment for his killer, Alton suggested they fight for a stronger law, Myers said.

“I was just trying to give them an outlet,” Alton said. “Fighting for this has helped immensely.”

Shank noted that investigators and the prosecutor grew close to the family and attended the bill signing, along with Del. Neil C. Parrott, who sponsored the House version, and other criminal justice advocates.

The bill passed this year after key Senate and House committee leaders agreed to a maximum sentence of 40 years, rather than life in prison.

As it turns out, a 40-year sentence likely will mean more prison time before the offender is eligible for parole.

For 30- and 40-year sentences for violent offenses, the earliest parole possibility is after half of the time has been served, meaning 15 and 20 years, respectively.

If the sentence is life in prison, an inmate would be eligible for parole after 15 years, minus any credits earned for good behavior.

David Blumberg, the chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission, said many prisoners have accumulated about 3 1/2 years of credit by then, meaning they could be eligible for parole after 11 1/2 years.

Other local bills

Justice’s Law was one of eight bills filed by Washington County delegation members signed into law on Wednesday, not including measures that don’t pertain to the county.

One of the signed bills clears the way for the family of Smithsburg Police Officer Christopher S. Nicholson, who was shot and killed on the job in 2007, to get his service weapon as a keepsake.

The Senate passed a version of the bill that forced the gun to be made inoperable. The House version didn’t include that provision.

Ultimately, the House version, which the family preferred, prevailed.

Another local bill signed into law pertains to accountability and transparency for the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

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