Nearly 15 months after a 19-year-old Potomac woman was raped and robbed in her basement bedroom, the man that prosecutors called the ringleader of the assault was sentenced to life in prison at a Montgomery County Circuit Court hearing Nov. 23.
Circuit Court Judge James L. Ryan sentenced Gujan A. Lee, 19, to two terms of life in prison plus 40 years — the statutory maximum. He suspended all but a single life term in accordance with a plea agreement submitted by prosecutors and Lee’s attorney Sept. 23.
Lee pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree rape, one count of first-degree sex offense, one count of first-degree burglary and one count of robbery with a dangerous or deadly weapon in connection with the Sept. 6, 2004 rape and robbery on Falls Chapel Way.
ACCORDING TO POLICE reports, court documents and statements made in court, Lee and three other men entered the house during the early morning hours through an unlocked sliding door.
The men were Lee, then 18, formerly of Potomac, Schmouree Fordyce-Williams, then 19, formerly of Potomac, Chris Benbow, 17, of Upper Marlboro, and Kevin Croker, then 17, of Potomac.
According to prosecutors, Lee, Fordyce-Williams and Benbow woke up a woman in her basement bedroom, questioned her about valuables in the house, threatened her and raped and sexually assaulted her. Croker entered the victim's bedroom but then left the house and did not participate in the sex crimes. He later returned to help take items from the house, according to court testimony.
A fifth man, Daniel Smith, took a key from the house while at a party two days earlier with the intention of coming back and stealing a laptop computer and other items. He provided the key but did not enter the house with the other men Sept. 6.
Croker was adjudicated in juvenile court. Benbow was prosecuted as an adult, and he and the three other adults all avoided trial by entering guilty pleas to certain charges under agreements that cap their maximum possible sentences.
Smith will be sentenced Dec. 15, Fordyce-Williams Dec. 16, and Benbow Jan. 4.
Maryland sentencing guidelines for Lee’s crimes call for a 36- to 50-year prison term. Lee’s attorney, Loyd Byron Hopkins, and Assistant State’s Attorney Deborah Armstrong traded arguments about whether and how much Ryan should depart from those guidelines in his sentence.
Hopkins pointed to a variety of psychological conditions and Lee’s family background — his mother abandoned the family and reportedly used crack cocaine while pregnant with him — as mitigating factors. He said that Lee was a participant but not the ringleader and that his sentence should be consistent with those of other defendants, whose plea agreements stipulated lower maximums.
“He’s ruined his life. And he realizes that. He’s 19 years old and with this terrible act, he has effectively ruined his life,” Hopkins said. “so it’s about salvaging what we can for Mr. Lee.”
ARMSTRONG CALLED for an upward departure because of the particularly heinous nature of rape, and because she said Lee was the clear leader of the group and understood what he was doing at the time of the crime.
“[The victim], who is the same age as the defendant, is serving her own life sentence, meted out by this defendant,” she said.
While praising Hopkins’ representation of his client, Ryan clearly favored Armstrong’s arguments.
“Other than killing somebody there’s probably no act that shows more lack of respect than what you did to this young lady,” he said to Lee before announcing the sentence. “Maybe you haven’t accepted this yet, but I believe it’s a fundamental right in our society to, for one thing, go to sleep in your own bed, in your own home and be safe.”
Ryan also agreed to recommend Lee to the Patuxent Institution, a correctional facility in Jessup, Md., that has a youthful offender program and offers mental health rehabilitation. Hopkins had lobbied for that placement and Armstrong agreed in plea negotiations to defer to Ryan regarding placement.
While a judge’s referral is required for placement at Patuxent, the institution has final say on acceptance.
Patuxent has its own parole board and procedures, but because Lee was given a life sentence, a decision to grant parole would have to be sanctioned by the governor.
Following the sentence, Ryan turned to Lee and said, “Good luck to you, young man.”
While Hopkins' and Armstrong’s arguments were the legal substance of the sentencing hearing, they were overshadowed by a series of silencing emotional turns.
“I’ve never been to a sentencing like that,” Armstrong, a career prosecutor, said following the hearing.
Lee’s aunt and his grandmother, who has raised him, apologized to the victim and her family, who were seated in the courtroom.
The victim’s mother also made a statement, in which she addressed Lee directly.
“Having the sanctity of our home violated has cost us all our sense of safety and trust. We are wary, on edge, look out for one another in situations that never before would have caused us concern,” she said.
THE MOTHER RELATED that the victim’s sister recently returned home from school to find the front door of the house open. She urgently sent the sister to a friend’s house and rushed from her workplace to the house.
It had only been the wind. But for the family, an errant gust of wind is enough to cause heart-stopping alarm.
In a written victim-impact statement submitted to the judge, she argued he impose the stiffest penalties, not in service of vengeance but to uphold the societal contract that makes violence unacceptable.
“To make excuses that might diminish the seriousness of these offenses is an affront to us all,” she wrote.
Turning to Lee, she said, “I suggest and hope and encourage you to find the people who will support you. They’re there. They will work with you. Open your heart to them, change your path.
“I remain open to your petition for forgiveness, if you change your heart and change your life. Make something of your life, no matter what setting you find yourself in. Make yourself a person who is an asset.”
Lee spoke last, crying and trembling as he read a letter to the victim and her family, who were seated in the courtroom, before receiving his sentence.
“I swear I’m sorry for what I did to you and your family, and I know that it’s going to take more than a letter or me just saying I’m sorry. But I really am sorry. I did not mean to hurt you,” he said. “I accept what I did and I know I’m wrong and whatever I have to do, whatever punishment, whatever will make you feel better, I’ll do it. If it’s my life I would give you my life to take back what I did.”
The victim herself did not speak at the hearing, but also submitted a written impact statement.
She said that it is impossible to describe all of the ways she has been affected by the crime. It took weeks before she could sleep in her own bedroom again, or enter a room without the lights on, she said. She couldn’t sit through class, and began carrying pepper spray with her.
“I never quite know what is going to strike a nerve or when something will remind me of everything that happened,” she concluded. “Luckily for me, I am one strong little lady.”