Judge Won’t Delay Trial In Death-Penalty Case Without Order From Top Court

… Correctional officer slain in 2006; trial set for May despite unanswered pretrial question

baltimoresun.com

By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

7:13 PM EST, January 10, 2011

Frustrated by delays in trying one of the first murder cases under the state’s new death penalty law, a judge said Monday that unless Maryland’s highest court orders a postponement, the trial will begin May 2 as planned.

“I invite you to go down the street,” Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Hackner told attorneys for Lee Edward Stephens, who unsuccessfully asked to push back their client’s trial in the 2006 fatal stabbing of a Maryland House of Correction officer.

The lawyers, Gary E. Proctor and Michael E. Lawlor, said they will seek a delay at the nearby Court of Appeals, where a pretrial appeal on evidence is to be argued in April, with no ruling expected in time for the May trial.

Hackner’s suggestion was in part procedural, but also will put the top court in a situation of deciding whether the pretrial issue and court date are critical enough for an emergency hearing and ruling.

“Because if they are inclined in the least bit to think the procedure that counsel was recommending in this case, which I declined to follow, was an appropriate procedure, they will be very quick to say that. We’ve have had voting cases that have gone from my desk to their desk within hours and they’ve ordered one way or the other,” Hackner said.

The 10-week jury trial has been rescheduled three times in two years, each time accounting for 20 percent of Hackner’s workyear. It must be scheduled far ahead. But if the Court of Appeals blocks the May trial date, Hackner is not forced by court rules to pencil in a new date until the top court says so.

A second defense issue with the May court date involved a specialist hired for Stephens’ defense and what Lawlor and Proctor said may be perceived as a conflict of interest or require replacing her for other reasons. She would have to be brought up to speed on the case. Hackner said he saw no conflict and thought it made sense to keep her on the Stephens case.

Prosecutors, too, objected to a delay that would put Stephens on track to be tried more than five years after David McGuinn was killed.

Stephens and Lamar Cornelius Harris face the possibility of execution if convicted of first-degree murder in the July 25, 2006, slaying of McGuinn, 42, whose death was a factor in closing the Maryland House of Correction. Stephens, 31, and Harris, 40, were serving life sentences there at the time.

Anne Arundel County prosecutors and the attorney general’s office have declined to discuss the case.

Stephens’ pretrial issue challenges the workings of the death penalty law changes enacted in 2009.

The controversial changes restrict prosecutors’ power to seek capital punishment to first-degree murder convictions in which there is DNA or other biological evidence, a videotaped confession or a video recording of the crime.

Proctor said that Anne Arundel County prosecutors said biological or DNA evidence links Stephens to McGuinn’s death. Hackner denied his request for a pretrial hearing on whether there’s enough evidence for a jury to make that connection. The defense appealed.

Proctor said it appears that 40 other men, not charged, were at the crime scene — aside from correctional officers and police — and five would testify that they had the victim’s blood on them, or in their cells, or had stepped in it, he said.

According to legal arguments for Stephens, “it is possible to imagine that there may be a case where there is DNA evidence that is relevant to guilt, but does not link the defendant to the act of murder.”

No trial date is set for Harris. His pretrial appeal is to be argued next month.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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