SNOW HILL – Convicted West Ocean City murderer Gregory Stokes, characterized by his defense attorney as “a damaged man who had been a damaged boy,” was sentenced this week to a combined 33 years in jail in Worcester County Circuit Court.
Stokes, charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Pamela Balk on Jan. 11 in her parents’ West Ocean City home, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and cruelty to an animal in a pre-arranged deal with Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd in June, leaving the ultimate amount of time he will spend behind bars as the only real suspense in the case. Stokes appeared in Circuit Court Judge Theodore Eschenberg’s courtroom on Wednesday facing a combined 33 years for the two charges.
His attorney, Neil Brafman, did not deny Stokes’ responsibility for the murder, leading off the proceedings with the statement, “the reason we’re all here today is because he shot and killed Pamela Balk,” but he quickly embarked on an effort to somehow explain his client’s behavior by blaming it, in part, on Stokes’ abused childhood and a series of head injuries.
“Mr. Stokes is a damaged man who had been a damaged boy,” he said. “He was abused by his father and he has been traumatized – literally – by a number of head injuries that contributed to this case.”
Brafman then called on a host of witnesses to reinforce the premise behind his request for leniency in sentencing. Leading off was Stokes’ mother, Debbie Jordan, who told a series of stories about her son from abuse at the hands of his father as a baby to his falling out of a moving car as a boy.
“He was abused from the beginning,” she said. “As an infant, he was thrown across the room. He fell out of moving car 25 years ago. He fell down steps. He was accident prone for a long time.”
Jordan said Stokes was badly beaten in an incident in Baltimore City dating back to 2006, an incident which changed his demeanor.
“He had big knots all around his head,” she said. “His behavior was different after that. He would black out from time to time.”
Stokes’ lifetime friend Charles Schlitz attempted to confirm how Stokes was somehow different after the beating.
“He’s been very different since the beating,” he said. “He forgets where he is. Sometimes, he stops in the middle of talking and doesn’t even know he was talking. He was never a violent person before.”
Nonetheless, Eschenberg was not buying the difficult childhood and injury-riddled adult life as a reason for leniency in sentencing. The judge pointed out Stokes’ seemingly selective memory about the murder and pointed to his lack of remorse and indifference about the incident.
“I keep coming back to the same thing,” he said. “He remembers just about everything with clarity except for firing the fatal shots. He doesn’t recall the first three shots he pumped into the victim’s head, but he recalls the fourth and fifth shot. Quite frankly, I find it all very hard to believe.”
Eschenberg said the court files indicate Stokes remembers getting the gun and admiring the gun. Stokes also recalls Balk asleep on the sofa and he remembers the gun pointed at her head.
Stokes’ apparent selective memory also applies to everything after the shooting. According to Eschenberg, Stokes recalls fleeing the scene and heading to Salisbury, he recalls the car going in a ditch and getting a cab. He also remembers getting stopped by the police and still having the gun holster strapped to his leg, which he said he used to hold his cell phone.
“I still can’t believe the officer fell for that one,” the judge interjected.
According to court records, Stokes recalls going back to West Ocean City for another vehicle and he remembers fleeing to Baltimore, where, he said, “he would blend in and not be caught,” according to court records. Stokes also recalls his arrest in Baltimore.
“He recalls everything but the fatal shot,” he said. “The pictures are no longer in the file, but I recall four bullet holes neatly placed in the temple. I couldn’t help but think he just went bang, bang, bang, bang. He cognitively chose to kill her.”
While Brafman’s witnesses lined up on Stokes behalf, the victim’s family, including her father, a brother and an uncle among others, quietly waited for the opportunity to weigh in on the proceedings. Balk’s uncle, Edward Brunno, told the court how the family not only lost Pamela Balk, but the tragic incident likely expedited the death of her mother, who had been battling a lengthy illness.
“I’ve heard the defense ask for leniency,” he said. “We not only lost Pam Balk, but we also lost her mother much earlier than we should have. This young man has shown no remorse whatsoever.”
Brunno said the stories of Stokes’ abusive childhood and his later propensity for violence could have, and should have, been halted somewhere along the line before the convicted killer murdered his niece.
“We’ve heard all about his head trauma,” he said. “His mother and his family need to shoulder some of this blame. Why did they wait? Why didn’t they get him some help earlier?”
Eschenberg agreed somewhere along the line, more help should have been given to Stokes before he committed his heinous crime. The judge pointed to a passage somewhere in the inches-thick case folder where Stokes threatened to kill an earlier girlfriend.
“He has fantasized in the past about killing another girlfriend,” said Eschenberg. “Somewhere in here it says, ‘my mother saved that girl’s life by stopping me from going over there and killing her.’”
Brunno addressed Stokes with harsh remarks before turning to Eschenberg for justice.
“Son, may God have mercy on your soul,” he said before directing his attention on the judge. “I implore you to sentence this young man to everything you can.”
When it was his turn to address the judge, Todd urged Eschenberg not to let the testimony presented by Brafman and Stokes’ friends and family influence his decision when it came to sentencing.
“But for the use of alcohol and drugs, this would have been a first-degree murder case,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, if we accept everything his family has said today, it doesn’t change the facts of this case. It has been determined he is criminally responsible for his actions.”
Todd also pointed to Stokes beating the Balk’s dog over the head with the butt of the handgun and urged the judge to mete out the maximum sentence on the animal cruelty charge as well.
“The dog was injured so badly, its eye balls were hanging out of their sockets,” he said. “Despite that, by the time Animal Control got there and the decision was made to euthanize the poor dog, it was still alive and suffering with its tail still wagging.”
Todd further said punishment, not rehabilitation, should be the objective of the sentence handed down by the judge.
“This is a horrible crime,” he said. “Rehabilitation should not be considered. I believe the soul purpose of this sentencing is punishment.”
With that said, Eschenberg sentenced Stokes to the maximum 30 years for the second-degree murder conviction and the maximum three years for the animal cruelty charge.
“I’ve considered everything in the file and I’ve read and re-read it several times,” he said. “And everything points to the fact he is totally without remorse. He doesn’t feel the same way everybody else in this courtroom feels about this murder. At every turn, he minimizes his involvement.”