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Md. Court of Appeals: Plea agreement does not impact illegal sentence correction

A circuit court can properly use its revisory power to add probation to a partially-suspended life sentence so that it would not be an illegal term — even when the sentence came as part of a plea agreement, Maryland’s top court has held.

Anthony Allen Crawley was sentenced to life in prison with all but 35 years suspended in exchange for a guilty plea to first-degree murder in 1997, according to the unanimous Court of Appeals opinion issued Wednesday. The plea agreement made no mention of probation, however, rendering Crawley’s sentence illegal because it became a term-of-years sentence for a charge carrying a mandatory minimum of life.

Crawley petitioned the Prince George’s County Circuit Court pro se to change his sentence in 2011, and the court treated his request as a motion to correct an illegal sentence. By the time the motion was heard in 2012, the Court of Appeals had ruled in Greco v. State that correcting an illegal sentence by tacking on a period of probation and making it a “split sentence” was not an abuse of power.

The circuit court took the same steps to correct Crawley’s sentence, making it life in prison with all but 35 years suspended followed by four years’ probation, prompting Crawley to appeal.

Though the parties agreed Crawley’s original sentence was illegal, the Court of Special Appeals held the re-sentencing itself was illegal because probation was not a term in the plea agreement. The court remanded the case for a hearing at which Crawley would have the opportunity to negotiate a probationary period.

The Court of Appeals reversed the intermediate court, finding no distinction between Crawley’s sentence and one imposed after a guilty verdict.

“The principle that a substantively illegal sentence must be corrected applies regardless of whether the sentence has been negotiated and imposed as part of a binding plea agreement,” Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote.

The circuit court properly vacated the original sentence, reimposed the mandatory sentence with time suspended and added a period of probation, according to the opinion, and did not abuse its discretion, Barbera concluded.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Office of the Attorney General praised the court’s decision in a prepared statement.

“By clarifying that the rule in Greco applies not only to sentences imposed after a trial but also to negotiated plea agreements, the Court of Appeals provided clarity to the lower courts and ensured that defendants will receive the sentence contemplated by all parties to the plea agreement.”

Crawley was represented on appeal by Bradford C. Peabody of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. Peabody did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The case is State of Maryland v. Anthony Allen Crawley, No. 65 September Term 2016.

This story has been edited to correct a spelling error.

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