Argued: March 3, 2017
Court for Prince George's County Case No. CT 97-0647B
Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten,
forms of first degree murder carry a statutorily-mandated
life sentence. See Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law §
2-201(b) (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol., 2016 Supp.). Although a life
sentence must be imposed, the sentencing court retains the
discretion to suspend any portion of it so long as the
suspended portion carries with it a period of probation. Md.
Code Ann., Crim. Proc. § 6-222 (2001, 2008 Repl. Vol.,
2016 Supp.); Cathcart v. State, 397 Md. 320,
327 (2007). The absence of a period of probation has the
effect of removing the portion of the life sentence that has
been suspended, leaving standing only the term-of-years
portion of the sentence. See Cathcart, 397 Md. at
330. A term-of-years sentence for first degree murder is an
illegal sentence that must be corrected by adding a period of
probation. Greco v. State, 427 Md. 477, 513 (2012).
case before us presents the question of whether a sentence
for first degree felony murder containing such an illegality
must be corrected as described in Greco when the
illegal sentence was imposed pursuant to a plea agreement.
For the reasons that follow, we hold that the rule
established by Greco applies regardless of whether
the sentence was the product of a plea agreement or upon a
conviction following trial.
crime, the plea agreement, and the sentencing
case has its genesis in the 1997 armed robbery and murder of
a District of Columbia policeman, Officer Oliver Smith, who
was off duty at the time. The subsequent investigation
quickly led the police to conclude that Respondent, Anthony
Allen Crawley, and two co-actors, Antwaun Brown and Donovan
Strickland, were involved in the commission of the crime.
Crawley was charged with first degree felony murder and armed
robbery. In exchange for his agreement to testify truthfully
against Brown and Strickland, Crawley agreed to plead guilty
to both charges.
plea hearing was held in September 1997. At the outset of
that hearing, counsel for Crawley made the following request:
"We are asking the Court to bind itself to an agreement
reached between the State and the Defense that the sentence
in this case would be life, which the Court would be required
to impose, but that all but thirty-five years would be
suspended on the felony murder charge." The plea
agreement, which was read at the hearing, provided in
The State, the Court, and the Defendant agree that the
Defendant shall be sentenced after the conclusion of the
trials of codefendants Antwaun Brown and Donovan Strickland,
to life suspend all but 35 years for the aforesaid felony
murder charge. The underlying charge of robbery with a deadly
weapon will merge, by operation of law, with the felony
murder charge at sentencing.
plea agreement did not mention probation, and the court did
not utter the term "probation" during the hearing,
except in the course of a somewhat lengthy colloquy with
Crawley concerning the impact that his guilty plea in the
present case could have on his then-current status in the
criminal justice system. Even then, the court's reference
to probation was in asking Crawley whether he was "on
any kind of parole or probation at this point in time."
Neither the State nor defense counsel referred to probation
in connection with the sentence presented by the plea, and
neither brought up the necessity to have a period of
probation attached to the suspended portion of the life
conclusion of the hearing, the court declared its
satisfaction that the plea was "knowingly, voluntarily
and intelligently made, " and that defense counsel had
discussed the plea in detail with Crawley and, with
Crawley's consent, his family. The court then formally
accepted the plea agreement.
took place a little more than a year later, on October 16,
1998. At the hearing, the court reiterated the agreement in
imposing the sentence:
The sentence of this Court is, as to Count One, first degree
felony murder, that you be sentenced to life in prison.
Pursuant to the plea agreement, all but 35 years is
suspended, and that sentence is to commence as of February
As to Count Two, robbery with a deadly weapon, the sentence
is that the Court rules that no sentence can be imposed
because under felony murder robbery with a deadly weapon
merges with Count Number One.
mention of probation was made by anyone at any time during
the hearing. The commitment record indicates a sentence of
"life, all but 35 years suspended, " with the box
for the probation period left blank.
2011, Crawley initiated the present challenge to the legality
of his sentence. Before addressing that claim, we pause to
review the then-evolving jurisprudential landscape in
Maryland that bears directly on the claim he makes.
v. State, Greco v. State, and their effect on this case
February 9, 2007, this Court decided Cathcart, 397
Md. at 320. The defendant Cathcart was convicted by
a jury of first degree assault and common law false
imprisonment. Id. at 322. He was sentenced to ten
years in prison on the assault conviction and to life
imprisonment with all but ten years suspended on the false
imprisonment conviction. Id. Cathcart appealed and
challenged the life sentence for false imprisonment as
disproportionately excessive, in violation of the Eighth
Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and the
Constitution of Maryland. Cathcart v. State, 169
Md.App. 379, 388 (2006). The Court of Special Appeals, noting
in part that "no period of probation was
imposed, " concluded that, "[i]f . . .
appellant serves the entire unsuspended ten years, he will
have no future risk of being retaken, as there is no
probation to be violated." Id. at 389. Focusing
on what was effectively a ten-year sentence, the Court of
Special Appeals readily concluded that the sentence was not
unconstitutionally disproportionate to the crime.
Id. at 391.
sought and we granted a writ of certiorari to review his
challenge to what he maintained was an illegal sentence.
Before us, Cathcart advanced an argument different from his
argument in the Court of Special Appeals. We summarized the
new argument this way:
Acknowledging that, in the absence of a period of probation
attached to the suspended part of the sentence, there will be
no occasion for the suspended part of the sentence ever to be
executed and that, as a result, he will never have to serve
more than ten years on that sentence, [Cathcart] complains
that the effect of the sentence [for common law false
imprisonment] as articulated [by the Court of Special Appeals
to be ten years] and when considered together with the
ten-year sentence for assault, is to preclude any parole
consideration for the entire duration of the twenty years.
Cathcart, 397 Md. at 324. To that argument, we
We do not agree that the sentences imposed on Cathcart were
in any way illegal. The sentence imposed on the assault
conviction was well within the permissible statutory range,
and, as we shall explain, the sentence imposed for false
imprisonment, despite its wording, was not a life sentence
and has no attribute or collateral consequence of a life
sentence. What the court has effectively done is to impose